Right-wing media are trumpeting a report from Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions claiming that the Obama administration has failed on border enforcement because nearly all of the immigrants the federal government deported last year were criminals, while undocumented immigrants without criminal convictions did not face high rates of removal. Indeed, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 98 percent of immigrants removed in fiscal year 2013 were classified as "convicted criminals, recent border crossers, illegal re-entrants or those previously removed," which is "in line with [the] agency's enforcement priorities."
The fact that conservative media see outrage over the news that the administration met its stated enforcement goals shows that the only action they will accept on border enforcement is really the mass deportation of all undocumented immigrants, regardless of their ties to the United States. But that is an impractical policy that has been derided even by Republican lawmakers.
On March 26, Sessions released a report condemning the Obama administration's record on border enforcement, claiming that the ICE record is evidence that "the Administration has carried out a dramatic nullification of federal law."
The Daily Caller seized on the Sessions report to blast Obama administration immigration policies that it claimed "have provided a de facto amnesty for most of the illegal immigrants living in the United States." It went on to complain that "99.92 percent of illegal immigrants and visa overstays without serious crime convictions or repeat immigration offenses did not face deportation."
National Review Online added that the administration is "shielding most illegal immigrants without separate criminal convictions from deportation" and uncritically quoted Sessions' claim that these priorities are "an open invitation for a future immigrant to overstay a visa, or enter the U.S. illegally, knowing that they will be immune from enforcement."
A Breitbart News article with the headline, "Sessions Report Demolishes Obama 'Deporter In Chief' Myth," stoked national security fears, stating that "Sessions' staff notes that ICE officers who communicate with his office say that there is likely some other serious security risk for allowing them to stay in the country that is cause for their removal." The article went on to highlight several instances in which undocumented immigrants were released from federal custody because they represented no threat to public safety.
On his radio show, Mark Levin used the report to make the point that "those terrorists on 9-11, they overstayed their visas."
The Department of Homeland Security has always maintained that ICE "must prioritize which individuals to pursue" because the agency "receives an annual appropriation from Congress sufficient to remove a limited number of the more than 10 million individuals estimated to unlawfully be in the United States."
This discretion has been widely applied by immigration officials for more than 30 years. And as the Immigration Policy Center has noted, the Supreme Court has made it clear that "an agency's decision not to prosecute or enforce, whether through civil or criminal process, is a decision generally committed to an agency's absolute discretion."
According to ICE's year-end data, of its 368,644 removals in FY2013, "98 percent of removals met one or more of the agency's civil immigration enforcement priorities. These figures highlight ICE's ongoing commitment to primary immigration enforcement missions: the apprehension of criminal aliens and other immigration violators in the interior of the United States; and the detention and removal of individuals apprehended by ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) while attempting to unlawfully enter the United States."
Fifty-nine percent of all immigrants deported had previously been convicted of at least one criminal offense. Of the 41 percent without a criminal conviction, however, 84 percent were apprehended at the border trying to enter the United States illegally.
In fact, the Obama administration has been so successful in prosecuting federal immigration crimes that, according to the Pew Research Center, 30 percent of all federal convictions in 2012 were for immigration offenses.
As BuzzFeed noted: "One of the consequences of this fact is that 48% of all people sentenced for federal offenses in the United States are now Hispanic, while 40% are undocumented." BuzzFeed continued:
This wasn't always the case. As recently as 1992, immigration cases accounted for only 5% of federal convictions, while only 22% of those sentenced in district courtrooms were Hispanic. Now, offenses related to unlawfully crossing the border are second only to drug-related crimes -- which account for 33% of federal offenses -- and Hispanics are sentenced at higher rates than any other ethnic group.
These facts led immigrants' rights organizations to call for expanding deportation relief to undocumented immigrants. The administration responded to the pressure by calling for a review of its deportation policies.
One organization that has been critical of the administration's enforcement policies, the Immigration Policy Center, recently reported that "most of the individuals being swept up by ICE and dropped into the U.S. deportation machine committed relatively minor, non-violent crimes or have no criminal histories at all." IPC added: "Ironically, many of the immigrants being deported would likely have been able to remain in the country had the immigration reform legislation favored by the administration become law."
If the United States were to undertake a policy of mass deportation as right-wing media seem to want, the cost according to a 2010 study by the Center for American Progress would total $285 billion over five years. CAP estimated that spending that much money "would require $922 in new taxes for every man, woman, and child in this country."
Economists have tried to put a dollar figure on how much the world economy would grow if we just removed all immigration restrictions overnight. The answer: a lot. Angel Aguiar and Terrie Walmsley modeled the effects of three U.S. policy alternatives -- full deportation of Mexican immigrants, full legalization and full legalization with increased border control -- and found, unsurprisingly, that full deportation reduces gross domestic product and the others would add. Deportation reduces GDP by 0.61 percent, legalization with border control increases it by 0.17 percent and legalization without border control increases it by 0.53 percent.
Most importantly, mass deportation would uproot undocumented immigrants who live in mixed-status families, most of whom have been in the country for at least a decade. As Pew reported, nearly half of undocumented immigrants live in families with minor children. The Economist noted in a February article that in "the two years to September 2012, 205,000 parents were deported."