Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released a report detailing deportations (henceforth “removals”) conducted during fiscal year 2020. This blog post presents data on removals in historical context combined with the estimated number of illegal immigrants. The number of removals in the final year of the Trump administration is the lowest number since 2005 and the rate of removals is the lowest since Congress created ICE in 2003.
The DHS report divides removals into two categories based on the arresting agency: those removed from the interior of the United States and those removed from the border. Interior removals are initially apprehended by ICE and then subsequently removed. Border removals are individuals initially apprehended by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer (which includes Border Patrol) while they attempted to illegally enter the United States. Unlawful immigrants initially apprehended by CBP are still called removals because they are turned over to ICE who subsequently removes them.
To a large degree and in most years, border apprehensions are independent of a president’s immigration enforcement policies because factors outside of the United States influence whether people decide to come in large numbers. This is somewhat different during COVID-19 as CBP expulsions of illegal immigrants under Title 42 mean that illegal immigrants are turned back over the border almost immediately rather than transferred to ICE for removal, which incentivizes more illegal immigration by lowering the costs of crossing the border. In most normal years, interior immigration enforcement is much more under the president’s control. Thus, it is important to separate border removals and interior removals when gauging the extent and effectiveness of interior immigration enforcement.
In 2020, ICE deported 62,739 illegal immigrants from the interior of the United States, down 27 percent from 85,958 in 2019 (Figure 1). Annual removals from the interior of the United States peaked at 237,941 in 2011 during the Obama administration. The Trump administration failed to increase removals to the level under Obama because local law enforcement agencies do not cooperate with President Trump’s ICE as much as they did with President Obama’s ICE. Beginning in 2012, border removals have outnumbered those from the interior of the United States and that continued even during COVID-19.
Figure 1 includes numbers for interior and border removals going back to 2003. The government didn’t start separating border and interior removals in official statistics until 2008, so it has always been difficult to compare immigration enforcement in earlier eras to 2008 and after. Since the difference between a border removal and an interior removal is the arresting agency, I used TRAC data to backout the number of border and interior removals by year going back to 2003 when CBP and ICE were created. For years where ICE data and TRAC data overlap, the difference is usually less than 1 percent. Interior removals and border removals began to increase in 2007 and continued to remain high through 2011, falling thereafter.
The Obama administration removed 1,242,486 from the interior of the United States during its full eight years, averaging 155,311 removals per year. George W. Bush’s administration removed 819,964 illegal immigrants from the interior of the United States during the last 6 years of his administration, equal to 136,661 per year. If the percent of the illegal immigrant population deported annually during 2003–2006, before the big increase in 2007, held in 2001 and 2002, George W. Bush’s administration would have deported 1,000,653 from the interior of the United States with an annual average of 125,082.
In comparison, the Trump administration has only managed to remove 325,660 people from the interior of the United States during his entire term in office – less than 100,000 more than President Obama did in 2009 or President Bush did in 2008. On average, the Trump administration has only removed an average of 81,415 unlawful immigrants per year. By any measure, the Trump administration failed to meaningfully increase immigration enforcement in the interior of the United States.
The percentage of all illegal immigrants removed from the United States is a better measure of the intensity of interior enforcement than the total number removed. Based on estimates of the total size of the illegal immigrant population from Pew for the years 2003–2007 and estimated according to the Gunadi method from 2008 to 2019 (the 2019 year estimates are repeated for 2020 because the latter year’s data are not yet available), ICE removed about 0.57 percent of the illegal immigrant resident population from the interior of the United States in 2020, down from 0.79 percent in 2019. Interior removals as a percent of the illegal immigrant population peaked at 1.96 percent in 2009.
ICE under President Obama’s administration removed an average of 1.3 percent of the interior illegal immigrant population per year of his presidency. The Obama administration’s interior removal statistics show a downward trend beginning in 2012 and continued until the end of his administration. ICE under President Trump has only managed to deport an average of 0.74 percent of the illegal immigrant population each year. The annual average for the George W. Bush administration was 1.21 percent deported annually for the six years for which we have data.
The Obama administration also focused immigration enforcement on criminal offenders (not all illegal immigrants are criminals and many of the criminal offenders merely committed immigration crimes). During the Obama administration, 52.6 percent of all illegal immigrants removed were convicted criminals, including those convicted of immigration crimes. During the years of the George W. Bush administration for which we have data, about 41.3 percent of all removed illegal immigrants were criminals. About 57.9 percent of those deported during the Trump are convicted criminals so far (Figure 3). Compared to the last year of the Obama administration, criminal removals are up down about 19,720 or about 14.2 percent while non‐criminal removals are down 34,651 or about 34.1 percent.
The Trump administration floundered in its efforts to increase removals. President Trump did not enforce immigration laws nearly as harshly as his two recent predecessors did.