In November 2014, President Barack Obama said that immigration officials would make it a priority to deport immigrants who had committed serious crimes. “We’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security,” Obama said in his address, as he presented a new memo on priorities for the Department of Homeland Security. “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.”
But data obtained by The Marshall Project, detailing over 300,000 deportations since Obama’s speech, show that has not been the case. The majority — roughly 60% — were of immigrants with no criminal conviction or whose only crime was immigration-related, such as illegal entry or re-entry. Twenty-one percent were convicted of nonviolent crimes other than immigration. Fewer than 20% had potentially violent convictions, such as assault, DUI or weapons offenses.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement releases an annual breakdown of deportations of criminal and non-criminal immigrants, but the numbers are misleading. Roughly a third of the “criminal aliens” in the provided dataset were convicted of immigration-related crimes only, such as entering the country illegally or possessing fraudulent immigration documents. Prosecution of such crimes has grown significantly since the 1990s.
The data analyzed by The Marshall Project, supplied by ICE in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, gives a detailed breakdown of 308,088 deportations between November 2014 and April 2016, including each deportee’s most serious criminal conviction. Roughly 11% of all the deportations were for drug offenses, totaling nearly 33,000 people since November 2014. Almost a third of those crimes were marijuana-related.
Obama’s 2014 speech was not the first time he promised ICE would focus on serious criminals. In a 2012 presidential debate, he said ICE should “go after folks who are criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community…not after folks who are here just because they're trying to figure out how to feed their families.” But a 2014 New York Times investigation found that most of the people deported during his presidency had committed minor infractions or had no criminal record at all.
The newly released data suggests that while deportations overall have dropped over the past two years, the proportion of serious criminals among them remains roughly the same.
The actual priorities laid out in the 2014 Department of Homeland Security memo were not as narrow as Obama implied in his remarks. They included anyone who had illegally entered the country since 2014, regardless of whether they had committed other crimes. Immigrants with only misdemeanors on their record were still relatively high on the list. And anyone with an “aggravated felony” was a No. 1 priority, though the broad definition of an “aggravated felon” under immigration law includes people whose crimes are neither aggravated nor a felony. It can apply to convictions like shoplifting, or other low-level crimes that carry little to no jail time.
ICE did not respond to questions from The Marshall Project. They instead referred to their 2015 report, which notes that 86 percent of ICE deportations in 2015 were a No. 1 priority.
Several immigration lawyers said that since Obama’s new enforcement priorities, they’ve noticed tougher enforcement for immigrants who committed lower-level crimes decades earlier. More than 1 in 5 of those deported for a non-immigration offense were convicted in 2005 or before, half of which were nonviolent offenses.
“I had never seen people getting picked up at home for an old DUI charge until recently,” said Peter Corrales, an immigration attorney in Orange, Calif., who represented several men swept up in ICE raids over drunk driving charges from the mid-1990s. Another client was arrested by ICE agents at his home in 2015 over a petty-theft conviction from the early 1990s. Such belated enforcement is often a shock for immigrants who had moved on with their lives, had children or gotten married. “They thought they had already served whatever punishment through the criminal justice system, and it’s over.”
Though the immigration debate often focuses on what to do about undocumented immigrants, enforcement priorities also affect legal immigrants convicted of crimes. More than 3,000 legal permanent residents have been deported since November 2014. Roughly half were for non-violent convictions, including over 1,000 deported for drug crimes.
“When you’re aiming for a high number [of deportations], you’re necessarily going to get a lot of people with minor offenses,” said Grace Meng, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who focuses on immigration and criminal justice. “How is this a smart form of crime control?”
This story was written by Christie Thompson and Anna Flagg for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.
Christie Thompson is a staff writer at The Marshall Project. Thompson covered prisons, drug policy, mental health, and other criminal justice issues as an investigative reporter for ThinkProgress and as an intern at ProPublica. Her work has been published by The Nation, WNYC, TheAtlantic.com, the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, and The Chicago Reporter.