Two million. That’s the number of deportations that President Obama has likely overseen during his time in office.

His policies have earned him the nickname “deporter in chief.” But not everyone agrees with that description.


For years, House Republicans have criticized the Obama administration for "cooking the books" to make it look like more people are being deported than in reality, an accusation echoed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) on Monday.

The truth is somewhere in between. President Obama has taken a different approach to deportations than his predecessors.

A report released last week by the Migration Policy Institute lays out how deportations trends have changed, first under President George W. Bush and more recently under President Obama.

1. More people are going through the formal deportation process

Previous administrations avoided using formal deportations in many cases. They were more likely to send people out of the country through an informal process called a “return.”


Critics derided that strategy as “catch and release” and after 9/11, President Bush took a different approach. He began formally deporting more immigrants through a process called a “removal.”

Obama didn’t just follow suit. He ramped up formal removals to record rates. President Bush oversaw roughly 2 million deportations during his entire eight years in office. Obama had already reach 1.9 million earlier this year, and he still has plenty of time to go.

Source: Migration Policy Institute

2. Illegal immigration has become increasingly criminalized

Because of the increased use of removals, people who get caught in the U.S. without authorization have a harder time returning. After a formal removal, a person is typically ineligible for a visa for at least a few years and faces a criminal charge if they get caught again.

How much more likely is border crosser to face criminal charges? Here’s the percent of criminal immigration cases in border districts with respect to the total number of apprehensions (people caught). Apprehended crossers are much more likely today to face charges than in the past.

Source: Migration Policy Institute

3. Tougher enforcement along the border

Immigrants caught crossing into the U.S. along the Southwest border face harsher consequences today compared to a decade ago.


A federal program called Operation Streamline, which began in 2005, cycles people suspected of crossing the border without authorization through the criminal justice system at lightening speed. In some courts, the accused have 25 seconds to hear the charges against them, enter a plea and receive a sentence.

The number of federal immigration cases along the border has steadily grown during Obama’s time in office, largely thanks to Operation Streamline.

Source: Migration Policy Institute

According to the most recent statistics released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) roughly two-thirds of the removals in fiscal year 2013 were of people encountered along the Southwest border. That’s nearly double the number of people removed along the border in 2008, when Obama first took office.

4. Convicted criminals are being prioritized for deportation

Under President Obama, federal immigration officials have set priorities for enforcement, focusing on convicted criminals and recent entrants (people who entered the U.S. less than three years prior to encountering authorities).

That’s allowed some undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S.

The Obama administration has even created a formal program to give certain young undocumented immigrants the chance to live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation. More than half a million people have signed up for the program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, since its start in the summer of 2012.


That doesn’t mean the convicted criminals being deported are all “gang bangers,” as President Obama claimed during a 2012 presidential debate. Two-thirds of the roughly two million people removed during his tenure were convicted of minor crimes or had no criminal record at all.

And because crossing the border is now more likely to land you in jail, there’s been an increase in deportations of people convicted of immigration crimes. Those people are being counted as criminals, as well.

Source: Migration Policy Institute

5. The rise in enforcement is fueled by funding

When confronted over deportations earlier this year, President Obama blamed Congress.


"The reason you have deportations taking place is that Congress says you have to enforce these laws," Obama said at a town hall in March. "I cannot ignore those laws any more than I can ignore any other laws on the books."

He’s correct that he has an obligation to enforce the nation’s immigration laws. Starting in President Bush’s tenure and continuing through Obama’s election, the trends in removals have closely followed the funding allocated by Congress.

Source: Migration Policy Institute

But as president, Obama also has the discretion to decide how enforcement resources can be best used. That was the premise for prioritizing the removal of some immigrants over others: that federal dollars would be better spent going after criminals and recent entrants versus people who have followed the rules and who have roots in communities here.


The same principle could be applied to grant broader deportation relief to undocumented immigrants.

The takeaway: President Obama has overseen a record spike in deportations. Congress has a responsibility, too, and could cut funding for enforcement, but Obama is ultimately responsible for the strategy that earned him the nickname “deporter in chief.”

Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.