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Immigration by the Numbers: Does the Political Rhetoric Match the Statistics?

Christy Carnegie Fujio, JD, MA, and Jessica Kurtz on September 22, 2011

When it was discovered that the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks entered the US legally with valid visas, immigration enforcement came into the national spotlight.

Holes in the immigration system were blamed for failing to identify the terrorists responsible for the attacks, sparking the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its sub-agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In response, both the Bush and Obama administrations have claimed to place special emphasis on targeting criminals and terrorists for deportation proceedings, but the reality is quite different.

In June, ICE director John Morton issued a memo calling for the preservation of government resources by using “prosecutorial discretion.” According to Morton, authorities should target cases involving serious criminals and those who pose a threat to national security or public safety, instead of non-priority cases that don’t necessarily merit deportation. In theory, deportation proceedings are used to kick out the “bad guys” and allow non-dangerous immigrants to remain in the US; however the deportation numbers tell a different story.

The total number of deportations initiated under the Obama administration since fiscal year 2009 is slightly under 1 million. Since 9/11, the annual average number of deportations has increased 12% under the Obama administration.

Despite the increase, terrorists and criminals do not constitute the bulk of immigrants being deported. Only 4 deportation proceedings were initiated on terrorism grounds and 34 on national security grounds, and almost 83% of deportations have been based on civil immigration law violations, such as working without proper authorization. The immigration enforcement net is too wide and is having a disproportionate effect on individuals who pose no threat to society.

With budget cutbacks a growing concern for the federal government and the 2012 presidential election on the horizon, the Obama administration will have to make its immigration enforcement policy better align with the political rhetoric. Important government resources should be used to deport more terrorists, threats to national security, and criminals, not civil law violators.

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