immigration woman
Maria Theresa Maximiliano (L), of Peoria watches U.S. President Barack Obama's national address in Phoenix, Arizona November 20, 2014. Obama imposed the most sweeping immigration reform in a generation last year, shielding 4.7 million undocumented immigrants. More changes have come to his enforcement policy, along with a reduce number of migrants making it to the U.S. border. REUTERS/Deanna Dent

Anti-immigration legislators cried wolf about deportations in 2013, claiming that Obama was deporting “virtually no one,” as Bloomberg’s Francis Wilkinson pointed out on Wednesday. In actuality, though, deportations were actually peaking in 2013. Since 2014, however, we’re seeing a clear reduction in deportations, and we’re on track to see a massive drop in 2015. Why are there less deportations? Its not just one Obama policy or merely the White House, but a confluence of factors.

Obama’s executive actions on immigration face intense scrutiny in the courts and observers say he’ll have a tough time getting them approved in the 18 months he has left in office. Yet even with the programs curbed, he’ll be able to shield many from deportation. Obama has also had trouble deporting immigrants that he’s wanted to get rid of After numerous legal challenges of illegal detentions, his Department of Homeland Security (DHS) scaled back a Secure Communities, a program that used local arrests as a dragnet for identifying undocumented immigrants.


Obama announced major changes in immigration enforcement in November 2014. Immigration advocates had been calling Obama the “Deporter in Chief.” Obama is on track to deport the most undocumented immigrants in history, according to PolitiFact. Following gridlock in Congress and a failed effort for bipartisan immigration reform in 2013, Obama laid out a number of new policies that would narrow the focus of immigration enforcement. The most wide-reaching programs were Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), which together protected around 5 million of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. from deportation.

Local Police Sick Of Immigration Agents

So-called “sanctuary cities” have taken a lot of heat following the alleged killing of a San Francisco resident at the hands of an undocumented immigrant who fell into Obama’s parameters for priority deportation, a Level 1 criminal and multiple-time felon. Local police have severed relationships with immigration enforcement officials in recent years. Critics blame political efforts to make life easier for immigrants in those areas. Yet there’s also a bottom line that’s driven the changes: detaining immigrants has cost cities in officer hours, wrongful detention lawsuits and community support. Congress is currently considering a bill that would punish cities who don’t cooperate, but it’s unfunded. With the federal government demanding more than it’s giving, local law enforcement are not taking the blame for immigrants evading deportation.

"ICE knew that he had been deported five times," San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi told the AP recently. "You would have thought he met a threshold that he required a court order or a warrant. They did not do that."

Prosecutorial Discretion: Less Deportations Of Minor Criminals

Work benefits conferred by DACA and DAPA have been frozen by a challenge in court, but President Obama declared that eligible migrants are safe from deportation. In the past few months, the White House has quietly expanded that use of prosecutorial discretion, training officers to sift through undocumented immigrants with a narrowed focus. Unless an immigrant is a “serious criminal,” a terrorist threat, or has recently crossed the border, DHS now plans to leave them alone. As many have pointed out, this prosecutorial discretion isn’t being executed very stringently and many undocumented residents outside of the administration’s criteria are being deported. Anecdotes aside, the shift in priorities are likely to contribute to a drop in deportations.

Even if Obama were to roll back that policy (or leave office), immigrant-heavy states are exploring ways to reduce the deportation of minor criminals, especially drug offenses. Human Rights Watch, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Immigrant Legal Resource Center support two bills in the California legislature that would entrench prosecutorial discretion at a state level.

  • “Assembly Bill (AB) 1351 would allow people with simple possession drug charges to complete a treatment program before pleading guilty,” according to a statement sent out by supporters. “Non-citizens who successfully complete the program would no longer face deportation for those offenses. Individuals who fail to follow the requirements of the program would face reinstatement of the charges and regular criminal proceedings.”

  • “AB 1352 would allow individuals who have already successfully completed drug rehabilitation under the program to withdraw their guilty pleas. In short, it would ensure that an immigrant who has no conviction under California law also has no conviction under federal immigration law,” according to the coalition.

Marijuana Legalization

Many undocumented immigrants skate through U.S. life without fear of deportation as long as they avoid police. But like plenty of American residents, immigrants get busted for smoking pot. Where a citizen might get a slap on the wrist, an undocumented immigrant might find themselves wrestled into deportation proceedings. How many? We don’t know; statistics on marijuana busts are sorely lacking for both immigration status and ethnicity. What we do know is that simple possession could have been a factor in as many as 40,000 deportations of Level 1 and Level 2 criminal deportations in 2014. Marijuana possession, like busted taillights, have served as a minor dragnet for apprehending and deporting immigrants.

In Colorado, legalization of marijuana made pot arrest drop by around 30,000 people, according to a study by the Drug Policy Alliance. More places have legalized marijuana: Washington State, Oregon and D.C. will no longer arrest residents for smoking weed. Assuming that a certain number of deportations were due to pot arrests, expect a slight downtick where states that have legalized it.

Drop In Central American Migrants

Less migrants generally means less deportations. The overall size of the undocumented population has dropped from a peak of 12.2 million in 2007 to around 11.3 in 2013, according to Pew. In 2014, Immigration and Customs Enforcement statistics indicated that Central Americans were outpacing Mexican migrants for the first time in recent history, at least on the border (around 15-30 percent of the deportation-eligible migrants from these countries cross the border legally.) Statistics on border crossings are approximate but it’s clear that less Central American migrants are reaching the U.S.

Why the drop in apprehensions of Central American migrants? For a variety of reasons, there appears to have been a drop in the number of people leaving El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras for the U.S. DHS officials have cited messaging in migrants’ home countries. Some Congressional leaders have cited “deterrence,” the punishment of current immigrants to send a message to current immigrants. More significantly, perhaps, is that more Central Americans are being deported by Mexico. Mexican officials detained 93,000 migrants from October 2014 and April 2015, almost double the number detained in the same time period a year earlier according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Intercepted by America’s southern neighbor, these migrants don’t become statistics in the DHS yearbook.

As for punitive deterrence -- letting migrants rot in immigration jails to send a message -- immigration advocates say that it is illegal. Immigration policy insiders say that the effectiveness of deterrence has never been investigated, let alone proven.

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