Two Million Deportation Mark Draws Protest, Debate

By Jude Joffe-Block
April 03, 2014
Jude Joffe-Block
Activists on their first day walking from Phoenix to Eloy to protest deportations.

PHOENIX — Protests are planned around the country this weekend to commemorate what some estimate to be the Obama administration’s 2 millionth deportation. But some on the other side of the debate are concerned the administration’s figures are misleading.

A group of about 25 activists from Phoenix began marching on Wednesday. The destination is more than 60 miles away, to a detention center in Eloy for immigrants facing deportation.

On Saturday, the activists plan to stage a rally there. It’s one of dozens of protests planned nationwide.

Natalie Cruz, one of the organizers, said the message is, “to let President Obama know that we are tired of all the deportations. Two million is too many already.”

At the two million deportation mark, Barack Obama surpasses President George W. Bush’s record for his entire eight years in office.

Obama’s tough enforcement strategy was intended to help get comprehensive immigration reform passed.

But as that hope has faded, frustration from advocates has grown.

Last month Obama said he’d asked his new Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, to review deportation policies to see if the laws can be enforced more humanely.

But not everyone is convinced this president is deporting enough people.

“The truth is that interior enforcement has dropped dramatically, but the Obama administration has been able to mask that,” said Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, a pro-enforcement think tank.

Vaughan claims this administration is juicing deportation numbers.

When Immigration and Customs Enforcement put out record-high deportation stats over the past few years, they included migrants who were caught at the border and then deported by ICE.

Vaughan said that’s like combining apples and oranges.

“They have taken the proverbial oranges, which are routine Border Patrol cases,  painted them to look like apples, which are ICE deportations, and then boasted about a record apple harvest,” Vaughan said.

Last year, 64 percent of the 368,644 people ICE removed from the country were immigrants who had been caught at the border.

Vaughan said meanwhile immigration officials under Obama’s watch have been deporting fewer people in the interior who are living here without papers.

From fiscal year 2008 at the end of the Bush administration, to fiscal year 2013, interior deportations fell more than 40 percent.

“And that is a huge incentive for people to keep trying to come here illegally,” Vaughan said.

Vaughan says this numbers game has tarnished the Obama administration’s credibility in the eyes of Republican lawmakers.

ICE says its removal figures include anyone removed from the country from their custody.

What has changed within the past decade or so is more immigrants caught at the border are transferred to ICE for formal deportation processing. Under previous administrations, border crossers were often just returned across the border — a practice some critics called “catch and release.”

So, on the one hand, immigrant rights activists are mad because Obama has deported more people than any other president.

On the other, immigration restrictionists are mad because they believe those deportation numbers were calculated differently than in the past.

“So who's right?” said Tanya Golash-Boza, a sociology professor at University of California Merced who has studied these numbers. “And the short answer is that there is some truth in the point of view of both sides.”

Golash-Boza says the numbers are messy and how deportations are categorized has changed over the years.

So if we want to know if Obama has deported more people from inside the U.S. than any other president — not counting those caught at the border — Golash-Boza says the currently available government datasets don’t provide the full picture to answer that question.

“We don’t have the numbers to say 'yes' or 'no' because we don’t have that information on any president or any administration prior to 2008,” Golash-Boza said.

Back at the march, activists say this numbers debate misses the point of what is happening on the ground.

One of the marchers, Lourdes Hernandez, has a husband detained inside the Eloy detention center. She said he’s been there for more than a year trying to fight deportation.  

“Every day, every single day, [the government] is separating families,” she said in Spanish.