On Wednesday, October 1, the Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS) released its annual report on immigration enforcement actions, which is part of the larger Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. The report presents summary statistics on the number of foreigners apprehended, detained, and removed from the country in the previous fiscal year (FY). The new Yearbook statistics show that (1) immigrant removals are bypassing the immigration court system in record numbers, (2) a record number of removals took place in FY 2013, (3) immigration crimes make up an increasing share of criminal removals, and (4) Central Americans make up an increasing share of apprehended migrants.1 Additionally, preliminary data show that FY 2014 is the first year in history that Mexicans did not make up the majority of migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. More detailed data would enable more specific analysis of the causes and effects of many of these trends.
Circumventing the courts
The number of removals proceeding through immigration courts declined significantly in recent years. In FY 2013, just one in six immigration removals was processed through the immigration courts, with the remainder taking place through expedited processes (Figure 1). In percentage terms, the frequency with which removals move through immigration courts has dropped by more than half since President Obama took office in 2009 and by two-thirds since 2002. Meanwhile, expedited removals and reinstatements of previous removal orders each hit record highs in both absolute and percentage terms. This suggests that, in the absence of additional resources to clear an immigration court backlog of over 400,000 cases, the government increasingly uses removal procedures that circumvent the courts entirely.
According to the OIS figures, a record number of removals—438,421—took place in FY 2013 (Figure 2). This surpassed the 418,397 removals that took place in FY 2012. It is important to note that the OIS statistics reported here are not completely consistent with the removal figures published by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which we have previously used to illustrate the breakdown of border and interior removals. Some inconsistencies are due to the fact that ICE is just one of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agencies that removes immigrants, and OIS figures are meant to represent all of DHS. The source of other discrepancies is less clear—for example, in FY 2010 and FY 2011, ICE reported more removals than OIS, which would not be possible if both sets of figures were consistent.
In the past five years, immigration-related crimes nearly doubled as a share of all criminal removals, increasing from 16 percent to 31 percent between FY 2009 and FY 2013 (Figure 3). This trend appears to reflect a change in removal priorities under President Obama: more emphasis on recent border crossers and less emphasis on individuals who have set down roots in the United States. However, it also appears to contradict another change the Obama Administration made in removal priorities: less emphasis on individuals who committed minor crimes. If the Yearbook contained breakdowns of border and interior removals, or if ICE’s border/interior removal breakdown contained more specific crime statistics, it would be possible to more precisely assess the increase.
The share of apprehended migrants who are from Mexico declined each year between FY 2009 and FY 2013, from 82 percent to 64 percent (Figure 4). Meanwhile, the share from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras more than tripled, from 9 percent to 28 percent. The apprehension numbers in Figure 4 represent both apprehensions by Border Patrol and administrative arrests by ICE—in other words, they represent migrants trying to come into the country as well as migrants who were caught inside the country. Figure 4 starts with FY 2008 because that year, OIS changed the way it includes ICE arrests in Yearbook of Immigration Statistics figures.
Border Patrol separately reports its own apprehension figures, which are a subset of the figures in the Yearbook. However, the only nationality breakdown that is consistently available for Border Patrol apprehensions is “Mexican” versus “Other than Mexican.” Figure 5, which presents the percentage of immigrants apprehended at the border who were not from Mexico between FY 2000 and FY 2013, also shows a large increase in non-Mexican apprehensions.
Complete data are not yet available for FY 2014, but preliminary figures show that for the first time in history, non-Mexicans make up the majority of migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. CBP figures show that between October 1, 2013 and August 31, 2013, 242,329 non-Mexicans were apprehended at the southwest border. Today, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson’s presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies revealed that for the full fiscal year, 479,377 migrants were apprehended at the southwest border. Although September data for non-Mexican apprehensions are not yet available, these figures show that a majority of people apprehended in FY 2014 at the U.S.-Mexico border were not Mexican. As explained above, DHS does not typically release data that break border apprehensions down into more detailed nationality groups, but other trends suggest that Central American migrants drove this increase.
The new Yearbook numbers reveal trends of interest to anyone who closely follows U.S. immigration. Unfortunately, in many cases, available data make it difficult to be certain about the causes and effects. Immigration data are often inconsistent from source-to-source, and different sources frequently break data into different subgroups, creating gaps in observers’ understanding of the underlying trends. For example, we know that immigration crimes make up an increasing share of criminal removals, but we do not know whether this illustrates the Obama Administration’s faithfulness to its removal priorities or a lack of adherence to those same standards. Alternatively, the trend could represent a more nuanced reality that incorporates other less obvious factors. This situation and others like it leave observers to speculate about causes and effects, often in ways that align with their ideological predisposition. Unless more integrated and complete data become available, along with greater transparency regarding collection and reporting, speculation will continue to play an outsized role in the public’s understanding of the U.S. immigration system.
1 OIS defines a removal as “the compulsory and confirmed movement of an inadmissible or deportable alien out of the United States based on an order of removal,” with consequences if the individual attempts to re-enter the United States.
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