By Emily Larsen
“Democracy Now!” host Amy Goodman claimed recently on CNN that former President Barack Obama deported more people than all previous presidents combined.
Data from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) show that while Obama did remove record numbers of people, he did not deport more than all his predecessors combined. Additionally, removals under Obama are not directly comparable to previous administrations, and other DHS statistics arguably show that he deported fewer people than his predecessors.
While Goodman is right that Obama deported record numbers of people using removal orders, she goes too far with her claim. “President Obama deported more people than all presidents before him combined,” she said on “Reliable Sources.”
Removal data from DHS going back to fiscal year 1892 show that while Obama did issue far more removal orders than his predecessors, 3.1 million removals from FY 2009 to FY 2016, it is still less than the 4.6 million issued before Obama took office.
(The numbers attributed to each president in the graph above are approximate. Because each fiscal year starts on Oct. 1 and ends on Sept. 30, and each presidency starts on Jan. 20, some fiscal years cover two presidencies. For example, FY 2009 started Oct. 1 2008, but Obama took office Jan. 20 2009. Data for FY 2017, which started Oct. 1 2016 while Obama was still in office, is not yet available.)
Critics argue that Obama’s removal numbers are not a direct comparison to removals under previous presidents because his administration inherited greater legal authority at the southern border.
Removal orders have historically involved bureaucratic paperwork and backlogged court proceedings run by immigration judges. But a law passed by Congress in 1996 gave immigration authorities more flexibility.
Agents could now issue “expedited removal orders” without the need to go before an immigration judge.
The authority was initially only extended to ports of entry like airports and sea ports, but a regulatory change in 2004 allowed agents to remove new entrants at or near the southern border. President George W. Bush nearly doubled the number of removals from FY 2001 to FY 2008, and Obama continued to issue record numbers of removal orders.
By FY 2013, 44 percent of all removals fell under the “expedited removal” category. The Center for Immigration Studies notes that more than half of the removals attributed to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2012 wouldn’t have counted as removals in previous years.
The number of removals also rose due to the creation of DHS in 2002. From 2003 to 2008, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) grew from 10,000 to 17,000 agents, and ICE grew from 2,700 to 5,000 agents. By the time Obama assumed office in 2009, he wielded what the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) has called a “formidable immigration machinery” that would issue up to 434,000 removals a year.
But critics of Obama argue that removal orders paint an incomplete picture of immigration enforcement. Before expedited removals became a popular tool for enforcement, immigration authorities would rely on a less formal method of deportation called a return (formerly known as a “voluntary departure“).
Under a return, immigrants apprehended by agents agree to leave the country before their court cases are settled.
Due to the high volume of border crossers that began in the 1970s and the bureaucratic process of formally removing someone from the country, returns were the primary way in which the government enforced immigration law for many decades.
And illegal immigrants had an incentive to comply – waiting for a formal removal comes with harsher legal consequences if an immigrant attempts to reenter the country at a later date.
Some argue that “deportation” should refer not only to formal removals, but also those classified as returns because both are the result of people leaving the country after being apprehended by immigration enforcement.
The number of returns has declined drastically since 2000 as fewer illegal immigrants attempt to cross the southern border. So while the number of removals grew under Obama, critics will point out that the overall number of “deportations” – removals and returns combined – fell to its lowest level in decades under his watch.
Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the MPI, says it’s worth noting that despite the focus on border apprehensions, removals within the interior of the country were still very high during the Obama administration.
“The important thing is that during that first term, all four years, there were more than 200,000 interior deportations. And those were record high numbers,” Capps told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Data shows that the majority of removals processed by ICE from FY 2008 to FY 2011 were interior removals rather than removals conducted near the border. But starting in FY 2012, interior removals declined and most removals were from those apprehended near the border or ports of entry.
Capps said that if you compared Obama’s interior deportation numbers to Bush or any other president, Obama’s would be higher, due in part to ICE not existing before 2003. Data on interior vs. border removals before 2008 was not available, so it isn’t possible to directly compare Obama’s internal removals to past presidents.
It’s also difficult to compare presidents because DHS statistics may not fully account for deportation actions early in the 20th century that weren’t well documented. President Herbert Hoover started to repatriate Mexicans in 1929, for example, an effort that led to the deportation of an estimated 1.8 million people, including U.S. citizens born to Mexican parents.
President Donald Trump has ramped up enforcement efforts since assuming office. From his inauguration on Jan. 20 to the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, ICE arrested 42 percent more people and removed 37 percent more illegal immigrants from the interior than the same period in the previous year.
Goodman did not respond to a request for comment.