What authorities have not highlighted is the simultaneous growth in the number of previously deported foreign nationals who have returned to the United States illegally either by sneaking through the porous Mexican border or by traveling on boats from the Bahamas to South Florida.
While annual illegal re-entries are not as numerous as deportations, over time they contribute to an erosion of enforcement gains. For example, in fiscal year 2012 at least 409,849 undocumented immigrants were deported. But during the same period, more than 160,000 previously deported foreign nationals returned illegally. By now, three years later, roughly the same number of people deported in 2012 have returned, immigration experts say.
The returns not only undermine immigration authorities’ claims of enforcement success but also highlight the inefficiency of border controls, experts say.
Federal prosecutors filed almost 20,000 criminal cases against previously deported foreign nationals in 2012 and have filed about 19,000 illegal re-entry cases in federal courts every year since 2009. But that is only the tip of the iceberg because those figures reflect only cases that have been prosecuted. It is not known with precision how many previously deported foreign nationals return each year and are not prosecuted or detected. But experts believe that the number of annual illegal re-entries is considerable.
Dan Cadman and Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, who have researched the issue, estimate that about 25 percent of all foreign nationals detained annually by immigration authorities have been previously deported. That means that in 2012 – when 643,474 foreign nationals were detained by immigration authorities – more than 160,000 of the detainees had been previously deported.
“In recent years, the figure of apprehensions of aliens who were previously deported has hovered at around 25 percent of the total of apprehensions,” said Cadman, a former official of the now-defunct U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and its successor agency – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
This means that in three years, about the same number of foreign nationals deported in 2012 – 409,849 – have returned.
Federal immigration officials familiar with deportations and illegal re-entries of previously deported foreign nationals declined comment on the findings.
But ICE said in a statement: “ICE is focused on effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes threats to national security and public safety. Criminal re-entrants remain a priority target for immigration enforcement and criminal prosecution as appropriate.”
Immigrant rights activists say previously deported foreign nationals return because they have left behind properties or families.
“They come back because they built their lives here,” said Francisco Portillo, president of Miami-based Francisco Morazan Honduran Organization. “They found a good future here. They come back because they left family members behind, children, wives, husbands and the lack of jobs and the violence in our countries also play a role in making them return.”
Portillo cited as an example the recent tragic case of his friend Jose Amilcar Canales.
A 34-year-old Honduran who had lived in South Florida for 14 or 15 years without immigration papers, Canales was deported more than a year ago after being arrested for driving without a license. He left behind his 12-year-old daughter and his ex-wife. Two weeks ago, he tried to re-enter the United States illegally, swimming across the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas. He drowned. His body was sent to Honduras.
Announcing the number of deportations as an enforcement accomplishment became an annual ritual for ICE over the last few years. But in November 2014, President Barack Obama ordered a shift in removal policy partly to stem mounting criticism of his immigration priorities.
At one point so many deportations were occurring that even the president’s political allies publicly denounced his immigration policies. Janet Murguia, president and chief executive officer of the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Latino advocacy organization, stunned the administration when she called Obama “deporter-in-chief.”
Obama’s Nov. 20 policy shift included a new deportation policy focusing chiefly on dangerous criminals. He also offered removal reprieves to nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants who have no serious criminal records and whose children are U.S. citizens or residents.
The deportation reprieve program is now on hold because a federal judge in Brownsville, Texas, ruled Feb. 16 that the president’s new policy failed to comply with certain federal regulations and proposed to not only shield millions from deportation but sought to grant them a number of immigration benefits.
The judge, however, did not prevent the Obama administration from setting new deportation priorities, which are expected to drastically reduce the number of noncriminal undocumented immigrants expelled in future years.
Before Obama took office in 2009, the majority of deportees were foreign nationals detained for having no immigration papers.
Under the Obama administration, the deportation priorities began to change. Slowly, the number of deportations of convicted criminals began to grow. Today, deportations of convicted criminals represent the majority of removals. Figures for fiscal year 2013, for example, show that nearly 60 percent of ICE’s total removals, 368,644 people, were previously convicted of a criminal offense.