Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Obama’s Unprecedented Number of Deportations


Between 1892 and 1997, a total of 2.1 million people were deported from the United States. A change in laws in 1996 permitted the number of deportees to increase from 70,000 in 1996 to 114,000 in 1997. In 1998, the number of deportees rose to 173,000. The numbers stayed fairly steady until 2003, when the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) infused more money into immigration law enforcement and 211,000 people were deported. From there the numbers have continued to rise – peaking at just over 400,000 in 2012.

These numbers are unprecedented: by 2014 President Obama will have deported over 2 million people – more in six years than all people deported before 1997. However, there is more to this trend than these numbers. The content of policies has also changed. There have been relatively low numbers of returns as compared to removals, a reflection of a focus on interior enforcement. There has been a shift towards the deportation of convicted criminals. With these trends, unprecedented numbers of people have been separated from their families in the United States. Obama has not only deported more people than any President; he also has separated more families by focusing on interior enforcement.

More Removals than Returns

Under the Obama administration, immigration enforcement has shifted from the border to the interior. The ratio of returns to removals reflects this shift – as returns are a border enforcement mechanism.1 “Returns” occur when a Border Patrol agent denies entry, whereas a “removal” involves a non-citizen attending an immigration hearing or waiving the right to a hearing—as in an expedited removal. In 1996, there were 22 times as many returns as removals. This ratio has dropped continuously, and in 2011, for the first time since 1941, the United States removed more people than it returned.

How has ICE been able to achieve a marked increase in removals?

Removals are carried out by immigration law enforcement officers who work in two branches of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS): Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Since 2008, we have witnessed a shift towards more ICE apprehensions. In 2002, ICE apprehensions accounted for 10% of all DHS apprehensions. By 2011, that figure was nearly 50%.

In Fiscal Year 2011, immigration law enforcement agents apprehended over half a million non-citizens. For the first time, ICE apprehended nearly half of them: just over 300,000. The decrease in Border Patrol apprehensions is due to the fact that fewer people are crossing the border illegally. Deportations have continued to rise because ICE has enhanced its efforts in the interior of the United States. This has happened in two ways: 1) funding for programs targeting criminal aliens has skyrocketed; and 2) increases in Police/ICE cooperation. ICE can’t do this alone. There are only 20,000 ICE agents nationwide, with only 5,000 actively employed in enforcement and removal operations. To achieve 400,000 deportations, ICE has to rely on Border Patrol apprehensions and police arrests. As Border Patrol apprehensions decrease, ICE increasingly relies on local law enforcement.

Focus on Criminal Deportations

President Obama’s focus has been not only on deporting more people, but deporting more immigrants convicted of crimes. There are four programs designed to locate criminal aliens: Criminal Alien Program (CAP), Secure Communities, 287(g), and the National Fugitive Operations Program (NFOP). Congress appropriated $690 million for the four programs in 2011 – up from $23 million in 2004. This funding led to an increase in arrests through these programs from 11,000 to 289,000 during that time.

The Criminal Alien Program is the largest of the four programs. In FY 2011, ICE issued 212,744 charging documents for deportation through the Criminal Alien Program (CAP). In that same year, 78,246 people were removed through Secure Communities, a program where the FBI automatically sends the fingerprints of people arrested to DHS to check against its immigration databases. 287(g) is a program that allows state and local law enforcement agencies to act as immigration law enforcement agents within their jurisdictions. I don’t have 2011 data on 287(g), but in 2010, 26,871 people were removed through 287(g). Only about 1500 were removed through NFOP. Much of the attention on Police/ICE cooperation has been on Secure Communities and 287(g), yet the vast majority of removals are occurring through the Criminal Alien Program.

Mostly minor offenses

Many of these criminal deportees are deported after a minor criminal conviction. In 2011, 188,382 people were deported on criminal grounds. Nearly a quarter were deported after a drug conviction, another 23% for traffic crimes, and one in five for immigration crimes. The DHS does not get very specific about these convictions, but we do know that drug crimes include marijuana possession; traffic crimes include speeding; and immigration crimes include illegal entry and re-entry.

Criminal Removals, 2011


It is likely that large numbers of people apprehended through the Criminal Alien Program are minor drug offenders and immigration offenders. Additionally, it is likely that the Criminal Alien Program is tearing apart families. One study found that, on average, people deported after being convicted of a crime had lived 14 years in the United States.

Family Ties

There has been an increase in the number of deportees who have family ties in the United States. Between July 1, 2010, and Sept. 30, 2012, nearly a quarter of all deportations—or, 204,810 deportations—involved parents with U.S. citizen children. This is remarkable, as a previous report found that DHS deported about 100,000 people who had U.S. citizen children in the ten years spanning 1997 and 2006.

Is there a relationship between interior enforcement and the focus on criminals?

We have seen a concurrent increase in the deportation of people convicted of crimes and of people with US citizen children being deported. Are these two factors related? The answer to this question may be an obvious “yes,” but I’d like to be able to speak more concretely about this in order to assess the consequences of deportations under the Obama administration.

ICE field offices

We can address this question by looking at ICE field offices that deport people. There are 25 ICE field offices responsible for deportations. Of these, five include jurisdictions along the southern border: El Paso, Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, and San Diego. The remainder operate in the interior of the United States. Immigrant detainees may be transferred from office to office, so this is far from a perfect measurement. However, a look at ICE field office activity can reveal some important trends.


CAP and ICE offices

In FY 2011, there were 396,906 deportations. Of these, 208,940 were from the five southern border jurisdictions. The remaining 187,966 were from other field offices without a southern border. The percentages are similar for 2010 and 2009.

Many of the people deported from the five southern border jurisdictions were living in those areas, but many were also recent border crossers. And, even those recent border crossers may have previously lived in the United States returning to be with their families. In FY 2011, 45,938 of the people deported were recent border crossers who were removed, as opposed to simply returned.

Whereas deportations are concentrated in the southern field offices, this is not the same for the Criminal Alien charging documents. For example, in 2011, 36,195 people were deported via the El Paso office. In that same year, there were only 4429 CAP charging documents issued in El Paso – a ratio of 0.12. Compare that to New York City, where 3,522 people were deported, yet 7267 CAP charging documents were issued – a ratio of 2.09.


The overall ratio of CAP charging documents to removals in FY 2011 was 0.53. The ratio for the five southern border field offices was an average of 0.23. The average for the remaining field offices was 0.87 – nearly a 1 to 1 ratio. This difference between the southern border field offices and the others points to a crucial distinction in deportations: relatively speaking, CAP is much more active in the interior of the United States. Since the vast majority of criminal deportees are found through CAP, it is fair to say that criminal deportations are more likely to affect immigrants living in the United States.


This brief analysis provides some evidence that the focus on criminal deportations has led to enhanced interior enforcement, and that this in turn is the reason so many parents of U.S. citizens are being deported. It would be useful to get a handle on how and why enforcement has changed. One of the most important changes appears to have happened in 2008, when ICE apprehensions shot up from 84,000 to 320,000. What happened within ICE to provoke this change?

Many pro-immigrant Obama supporters would like to know if the unprecedented numbers of deportations that have happened under his watch are due to his actions or to those of Congress or other parties. The most marked changes appear to have happened in 2008, the year before Obama was elected. However, President Obama has chosen to continue on the path set by the Bush administration. For example, President Obama appointed Janet Napolitano as Secretary of DHS, and she has made it her mission to achieve a quota of 400,000 deportees a year, even as fewer immigrants have come to the United States illegally. Obama has made it clear that he wants DHS to focus on criminal deportations. This commitment has led to increased Police/ICE cooperation, which has torn millions of immigrants from their homes.

Tanya Golash-Boza is the author of: Yo Soy Negro Blackness in PeruImmigration Nation: Raids, Detentions and Deportations in Post-9/11 Americaand Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States.


1 DHS defines returns in the following manner: “In some cases, apprehended aliens may be offered the opportunity to return to their home countries without being placed in immigration proceedings. This procedure is common with non-criminal aliens who are apprehended at the border. Aliens agree that their entry was illegal, waive their right to a hearing, remain in custody, and are returned under supervision. Return is also available for non-criminal aliens who are deemed inadmissible at ports of entry. In addition, some aliens apprehended within the United States agree to voluntarily depart and pay the expense of departing. These departures may be granted by an immigration judge or, in some circumstances, by a DRO field office director. In certain instances, aliens who have agreed to a return may be legally admitted in the future without penalty.”

Tanya Golash-Boza is the author of: Yo Soy Negro Blackness in PeruImmigration Nation: Raids, Detentions and Deportations in Post-9/11 Americaand Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States. Her new book Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor, and Global Capitalism will be published by NYU Press in 2015.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


October 24, 2016
John Steppling
The Unwoke: Sleepwalking into the Nightmare
Oscar Ortega
Clinton’s Troubling Silence on the Dakota Access Pipeline
Patrick Cockburn
Aleppo vs. Mosul: Media Biases
John Grant
Humanizing Our Militarized Border
Franklin Lamb
US-led Sanctions Targeting Syria Risk Adjudication as War Crimes
Paul Bentley
There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: the Silence of Dylan
Norman Pollack
Militarism: The Elephant in the Room
Patrick Bosold
Dakota Access Oil Pipeline: Invite CEO to Lunch, Go to Jail
Paul Craig Roberts
Was Russia’s Hesitation in Syria a Strategic Mistake?
Lara Gardner
Why I’m Not Voting
David Swanson
Of All the Opinions I’ve Heard on Syria
Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Wight
Hillary Clinton and the Brutal Murder of Gaddafi
Diana Johnstone
Hillary Clinton’s Strategic Ambition in a Nutshell
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Stephen Cooper
Hell on Earth in Alabama: Inside Holman Prison
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Rob Urie
Name the Dangerous Candidate
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Neve Gordon
Israel’s Boycott Hypocrisy
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Victor Wallis
On the Stealing of U.S. Elections
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Stanley L. Cohen
Equality and Justice for All, It Seems, But Palestinians
Steve Early
In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control
Kristine Mattis
All Solutions are Inadequate: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Politicians Mention Climate Change
Peter Linebaugh
Ron Suny and the Marxist Commune: a Note
Andre Vltchek
Sudan, Africa and the Mosaic of Horrors
Keith Binkly
The Russians Have Been Hacking Us For Years, Why Is It a Crisis Now?
Jonathan Cook
Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions
Ted Dace
The Fall
Sheldon Richman
Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System
Susana Hurlich
Hurricane Matthew: an Overview of the Damages in Cuba
Dave Lindorff
Screwing With and Screwing the Elderly and Disabled
Chandra Muzaffar
Cuba: Rejecting Sanctions, Sending a Message
Dennis Kucinich
War or Peace?
Joseph Natoli
Seething Anger in the Post-2016 Election Season
Jack Rasmus
Behind The 3rd US Presidential Debate—What’s Coming in 2017