Under the shadow of Mexico’s twin volcanoes in the tiny mountainous village of San Mateo Ozolco, Erasmo Aparicio stands outside his house, arms crossed, black hood pulled down over his hair. “Fucking Mexico, no fucking money,” he spits out in defiant English.
Now a campesino by his own description making 100 pesos---or just under $7---a day, he’s a long way from the $9 an hour he was making preparing fish in one of Philadelphia’s Italian restaurants.
As one of the more than 4 million Mexicans who were apprehended in the United States over the past seven years, Erasmo found his life uprooted and his dreams put on hold when he was picked up on the way to buy a beer in South Philadelphia.
It’s undeniable that U.S. immigration policy has profound human consequences, but it is admittedly at the margins of Lawfare’s areas of concern. The site has not spent a great deal of energy on immigration reform questions. But immigration is never too far from national security discussion, since many people believe---rightly or wrongly---that failure to control the country’s borders is itself a profound national security failure.
Moreover, the specific path President Obama has chosen to reform the U.S. immigration system without congressional involvement raises important issues regarding presidential power. And the immigration system is constantly handling deportation and removal cases with national security overtones. Yet even with these links to broader issues, there are people on all sides of the many policy questions surrounding immigration enforcement who do not quite understand even the basics of those policies.
Take the question that should be the simplest: how many people are actually being deported? As it turns out, the answer depends on which categories of deportations---removals or returns---that you include.
Removals are what most people think of when they imagine deportations (and they are what many analysts report): that is, formal proceedings, at times in front of immigration judges (though this is not always the case) and visa or possibly criminal consequences for those caught and expelled.
In contrast, returns are the less formal version of deportations. With returns, deportees (usually along the border) are allowed to “voluntarily return” to their countries without facing any legal consequences.
Note: The number of removals and returns is not synonymous with the total number of individuals removed or returned. One individual can be removed or returned multiple times. Data from the Department of Homeland Security’s Yearbook of Statistics and Customs and Border Patrol.
Over the past decade, returns have steadily been falling while removals have been rising---pushed by 1996 legislation and its subsequent modifications and programs that emphasize deportations with consequences.
This explains how news outlets can simultaneously report that “U.S. Deportations Reach Record High in 2013” (they in fact mean removals), while others say there is a “Decline in Total Number of Deportations” (since they are combining removals and returns). Depending on how you count, in 2013 there were either 438,421 deportations (removals only) or 616,792 deportations (removals plus returns).
A crucial point, however, is that the lower overall deportation numbers are largely due to fewer apprehensions along the southwest border, rather than any deportation policy changes. With smaller numbers of people caught along the border, there are fewer individuals who can then be deported.
The Obama administration’s November 2014 executive actions provide temporary deportation protection for an estimated four to five million undocumented immigrants (most of whom qualify by having a U.S. born child). But they also spurred backlash over what some observers perceive as the administration’s failure to enforce the United States’ immigration laws.
It is true that the administration’s enforcement is perhaps becoming more pronounced in some parts of the country than others. With the 2014 executive actions, the administration is taking yet another step to subtly shift deportation enforcement away from the interior---where migrants often have deep ties to their communities---and toward the border where migrants are more likely to be recent arrivals.
The latest executive actions follow internal memos that prioritize deporting recent arrivals and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012. They also come with the announcement that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will be “shifting resources to the border and recent border crossers.” Taken together, these policies have meant decreasing interior removals as a percentage of total removals for the past two years.
For Amanda Alvarado, a 33 year old shopkeeper in San Mateo Coatepec, this couldn’t be more welcome news. Her brother Carlos and sister Gabriela (both names have been changed) live in Chicago and Los Angeles respectively, without documents, arriving in their adopted cities more than eight years ago.
Surrounded by her stores’ dry goods---jalapeño chilies, Nescafe, and cooking oil---Amanda worries aloud that the migra could catch and deport her siblings. This is an especially bad possibility for her brother, she explains, since he would leave behind his two American born children and his U.S. citizen wife.
Carlos’s chances of deportation may be less likely now, however, given that he fits the qualifications outlined under the most recent temporary deportation protection. But many families have not been so lucky, with 600,000 parents of U.S. citizen children picked up and deported over the past fifteen years.
To avoid tearing apart families, Obama stated in his November 2014 Address to the Nation that his administration would focus on deporting “felons not families, criminals not children.” And Department of Homeland Security statistics back this claim up, with data showing that criminal deportations have jumped under the Obama administration from 105,266 in 2008 to 198,394 in 2013.
But this begs the question: What constitutes a criminal? When many people hear that the Obama administration is deporting criminals, they may imagine dangerous individuals (those convicted of murder, rape, and other violent crimes). Yet this is but a sliver of the crimes that can qualify someone for the title of criminal for deportation purposes. According to data obtained by the New York Times through a Freedom of Information Act request, deportees were charged with more than 450 different crimes during the past decade.
The single largest category of crimes has been immigration crimes, which served as the predicate offense for almost 14 percent of all formal removals in 2013. More than 60,000 deported criminals in 2013 were charged with immigration crimes as their worst offense, compared with the 44,000 who were charged with Immigration and Customs Enforcement Level 1 (the most serious classification) and Level 2 violent crimes.
Simply being in the United States without papers is a civil (not criminal) offense. However, improper entry can be a misdemeanor charge (punishable with up to six months in jail) and reentry after a previous removal is considered a felony punishable with up to two years in jail.
Erasmo wasn’t charged with any criminal offenses when he was deported, but his entire illegal migration experience was far from smooth. He says he faced deadly risks crossing the border and rampant racism during his time in Pennsylvania. Then after being deported to Nuevo Laredo, a border town where he didn’t know anyone, he worked odd jobs to get a bite to eat and save up the money for the fourteen hour bus ride back to his hometown.
Yet as the sun drops behind the mountainous background, he says goodbye with one final question, “So, do you think you can you help me get back to Philadelphia?”
Stephanie Leutert is a MA candidate at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Prior to attending Yale, Stephanie worked as a Research Associate in the Latin America Studies program at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York. She has also conducted field research on refugee policy in Ecuador and war torture in northern Uganda in partnership with the African Center for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims.