Every year, the Department of Homeland Security releases statistics showing how many deportations its enforcement agencies -– Immigration and Customs, the Border Patrol -- have carried out in the previous year.
This year’s shows DHS removed 392,000 people from the country in 2011, just below the all-time record in 2009.
Which sounds like an enforcement advocate’s dream.
And yet, Texas Congressman Lamar Smith, a staunch immigration enforcement advocate, took the report as an opportunity to lambast the Obama administration, accusing it of “falsify[ing] their record to achieve their so-called historic deportation numbers.”
He said the administration had cooked the books, making it look like they “removed” all those people, when in fact tens of thousands of them had actually just been “returned.”
To clear this up, I called up Ben Winograd, a staff attorney at the American Immigration Council, who pores over these statistics.
He explained that in deportation-speak, the government generally uses two terms to refer to how it boots someone out of the country.
“When the government refers to a removal, they are referring to the forced departure of an immigrant based on an order of removal,” from an immigration officer or judge, Winograd said.
“When the government, by contrast, refers to a return, they’re referring to an immigrant who legally could have been subject to an order of deportation, but was allowed to return voluntarily,” he said.
Generally, people removed from the interior of the country, either through directed enforcement operations, workplace raids, or from jails, are “removed,” whereas migrants caught trying to cross the border are generally “returned.”
These distinctions are important, because a removal can come with a harsher reentry penalty that makes it much harder to get back into the U.S. legally.
Congressman Smith’s gripe is that of those more than 390,000 people DHS says it removed, some 30,000 were actually just deported through a special program that returns them to their home countries without that harsh reentry penalty. In other words, they were technically returned, not removed.
Nonetheless, this year’s report shows one of the largest numbers of ‘removals’ in history, and not only that. It shows the lowest number of ‘returns’ since 1970 (only 324,000, compared to about 584,000 in 2009), meaning, in essence, that fewer people are being caught crossing the border.
And yet, despite that, neither the left nor the right seem to be celebrating.
“It’s kind of the thing that neither party likes to mention,” Winograd said. “Republicans don’t want to mention it because it makes Obama look good on immigration enforcement. And Democrats don’t want to mention it because it makes Obama look bad on immigration enforcement.”
However you interpret these numbers, what is clear is that more and more of them are ending up at places like the channelized banks of the Tijuana River, steps from the fence that separates Tijuana from San Diego.
It’s where a lot of deported migrants who have no money and nowhere to go languish until they can either figure out how to get back to their hometowns, or back across the border.
It’s where I met Jose Contreras, a 21-year-old who came to the U.S. three years ago to work in construction, and was deported two months ago.
“I was working and, unfortunately, immigration passed by, asked for my documents, and deported me,” he said.
Contreras spends a lot of his time at the river, in the shade of a pedestrian bridge that connects visitors from San Diego to downtown Tijuana’s principal tourist avenue. It’s just steps from the border fence, and it’s where he tries to figure out how to get back across.
“I don’t want to go home because I haven’t finished what I started, but now I try to cross, and it’s harder,” Contreras said. “It’s harder because they have technology, and there are risks.”
But he said he would keep trying, as many times as he had to, no matter how often he got deported, until he could get back to his job. In other words, he’s willing to keep driving those DHS statistics up.