Deportation Measures in Action: What Obama’s Enforcement Means for Immigration

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Recent changes to immigration enforcement have made deportation a heightened concern for thousands of immigrants and the Washington attorneys who serve them.

U.S. immigration laws contain numerous grounds upon which non-citizens, including green card holders, may be deported back to their country of origin. While deportation laws have largely remained the same over past decades, recent changes to their enforcement have made deportation a key concern for thousands of immigrants and attorneys who serve them in Washington, where 13.5% of the state’s population is foreign-born.

Increased Deportations: What’s Behind Them?
The government outlines priorities for deporting particular immigrants, but the numbers of those deportations are rising regardless. In 2011, 392,000 immigrants were deported from the U.S., but only 48% of those cases were linked to breaking a law inside the country.

Even though the laws have changed little, the deportation process has evolved significantly in the last 20 years. In the past, the most common procedures for someone facing deportation was a traditional court hearing, which empowered a judge with discretion over the case. This is no longer the norm. About two-thirds of deported individuals go through “summary removal procedures,” which remove the opportunity to apply for legal permanent status and appear before a judge. Summary procedures now outpace traditional proceedings in immigration court. Since 1996, deportation measures such as stipulated removal, reinstatement of removal, or expedited removal have all risen significantly.

In the early 1980s, removal numbers hovered at an average of about 40,000 each year. Removal numbers jumped in 1997 following the passage of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which gave immigration officials much more power in enforcing immigration law and ultimately deporting people.

In 2001, approximately 189,000 individuals were deported from the U.S. That number grew to 387,000 in 2009 and fiscal years 2009-2012 saw an average of about 396,000 per year. In fiscal year 2014, ICE conducted over 315,000 removals.

In the early years of Obama’s first term, one of the most prominent features of the increasing number of deportations was that so many of them were conducted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection following apprehension at a border. In 2012, 17% of all deportations were conducted by the agency, but that number grew to 25% in 2013. Meanwhile, the portion carried out by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement dropped.

Enforcement under Obama’s administration
Immigration issues have appeared on Obama’s agenda since his early years in office, but disagreements over the best way to implement reform leaves a large number of detainees in limbo. In 2010, immigration advocates criticized the lack of adequate action by the administration, arguing that record deportation highs and confusion over how to handle clogged deportation court dockets forced immigrants to pay the price.

The Obama administration’s enforcement strategies have led to cooperation between ICE, the FBI, and local law enforcement, as they target terrorists and criminal aliens. In January 2015, the Department of Homeland Security started preparing thousands of immigration agents to focus on priority groups, such as terrorism threats, convicted criminals, and recent immigrants. Currently, it’s estimated that more than 400,000 cases take up space on the nation’s immigration courts, so a full review of all immigrant detainee cases has been a priority for the agencies involved in this process.

Often, the federal government “outsources” enforcement to local police, state troopers and deputy sheriffs, opening the way to abuses. One such abuse is more aggressive labeling of immigrants as unlawful or dangerous, giving those individuals the highest chance of being deported quickly. With a cap on annual deportations, the government’s best effort to manage the large community of detainees has been to focus on those deemed high-risk, such as criminals.

On the ground, a program known as Secure Communities used the fingerprints of people in custody for other reasons to identify deportable immigrants. In July 2015, this program was replaced by the Priority Enforcement Program, which encourages local and state law enforcement to work with the Department of Homeland Security to identify individuals who serve as a public safety risk. The program’s aim is broad, focusing on “convicted criminals and others who pose a danger to public safety.”

The future of deportation enforcement
President Obama’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents aims to offer deportation protection as well as work authorization to qualified unauthorized immigrants so long as applicants are parents of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. But a court injunction against this has stalled the act’s implementation. Delays like this show little, if any, progress towards the underlying deportation problems. With Obama’s time in office drawing to a close over the next year, it looks like any major immigration reform is unlikely, but policy directives could do more to cut down on deportations.

While deportation laws have not changed significantly since the 1990s, the enforcement of those laws certainly has — and not in the best interests of immigrants. Now more than ever, Washington immigration attorneys play an important role in assisting potential deportees with the legal aspects of this complicated system.

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