Interior Immigration Enforcement by the Numbers

By Matt Graham, Bipartisan Policy Center, @matt__graham

Opinions on the extent to which the U.S. enforces immigration laws vary dramatically. Some contend that enforcement is already extremely tough, while others contend that the government fails to enforce immigration law. Rarely are these claims backed by more than one or two statistics.

Based on a long series of Freedom of Information Act requests, the Transactional Record Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) keeps records of immigration enforcement statistics. Their numbers paint a more nuanced picture than either side’s advocates, but leave major holes that available data appear unable to fill.

Removals (Deportations)

The common claim that the Obama Administration deports unauthorized immigrants in record numbers is true. Figure 1 reports the total number of removals each fiscal year between 1980 and 2011. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) 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.” These numbers do not include individuals that were “turned back” at the border—only individuals who went through either an administrative or judicial removal process.

Figure 1. Number of alien removals, FY 1980—2011


Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2011.

It is important to note, however, that looking at only the number of deportations can be misleading. The number of new removals ordered in immigration court has dropped each year that President Obama has been in office, as has the number of deportation proceedings.

Figure 2. Number of removals ordered in immigration courts, FY 1998—2013


Source: TRAC. FY 2013 figures include only October through April.

Figure 3. Number of deportation proceedings in immigration courts, FY 1992—2013


Source: TRAC. FY 2013 figures include only October through April.

Like the total number of deportations, court actions do not tell the whole story. This is because not all deportations are a result of immigration court cases. Table 1 suggests that a large and increasing share of deportations occur without ever going to immigration court. TRAC forwards two potential reasons for this, but explains that data are not sufficient to parse between them:

  • Reinstated orders. Already-deported immigrants who re-enter the country illegally do not get a new deportation order, but they are deported again. In May 2012, 34.7 percent of all deportations were reinstated orders.
  • Administrative removals. Not all types of deportation require a hearing. For example, immigrants previously convicted of aggravated felonies may be removed administratively. Removals that never reach court still count as deportations, but do not appear in statistics about immigration courts.
  • Incomplete data. Elsewhere, TRAC has alleged that ICE does not release sufficient data to resolve some perceived data inconsistencies.

Table 1. Immigration court orders versus actual deportations, FY 2010—12

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Source: TRAC.

Among those deportation cases that do reach immigration court, the share that end in an allowance to stay in the U.S. has risen dramatically (Figure 4). This rapid increase may be due in part to President Obama’s deferred action program, which allows “DREAMers” to avoid deportation. Additionally, if the government is deporting more immigrants administratively, it could follow that individuals who reach immigration court now tend to have less serious criminal backgrounds. Data presented later (Figure 6) suggest that this is plausible.

Figure 4. Percent of deportation cases ending in allowance to stay in the U.S., FY 1998—2013


Source: TRAC. FY 2013 figures include only October through April.


Money provides another measure of the U.S. government’s commitment to interior enforcement. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is the principal DHS office responsible for interior enforcement of U.S. immigration law. Its budget increased rapidly since 2005, but has dropped slightly since the recession began having major budget impacts in FY 2009.

Figure 5. ICE budget, FY 2005—13


Source: TRAC (2005-10), DHS (2011-12), CRS (2013). Note: 2005-10 figures represent total expenditures. 2011-12 represent enacted budget. 2013 represents pre-sequester enacted budget.

Criminal Activity

The extent to which the government deports immigrants accused of crimes (other than entering or remaining in the U.S. without authorization) often rises to prominence in the immigration debate. Since 2008, the share of deportation orders sought in immigration court due to criminal activity has fallen. As explained above, however, many immigrants who have been found guilty of aggravated felonies are deported without ever going to immigration court.

Notably, the data below only represent situations in which ICE cites criminal activity as a basis for deportation. For some immigrants with criminal histories, ICE may choose to cite other reasons in its pursuit of deportation. According to TRAC, ICE has stated that it “cannot reliably identify” the total number of cases in which the immigrant had a criminal history. As with the issue of deportation proceedings above, the available data are not equipped to answer all questions.

Figure 6. Deportation orders sought in immigration court based on alleged criminal activity, Jan. 2008 – Mar. 2012


Source: TRAC. * Preliminary Counts.

A more detailed version of Figure 6 is available here.

Similarly, the number of criminal prosecutions from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and ICE referrals has fallen in recent years. The table below displays the number of criminal prosecutions over the previous 12 months.

Table 2. Trend in criminal prosecutions from referrals to CBP and ICE, Jan. 2009 – Aug. 2012 (previous 12 months)

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Source: TRAC.

In ICE detention centers, the majority of immigrants have a criminal conviction. Table 3 displays the top 10 most serious convictions for those with a criminal conviction, and the source table displays the most serious conviction for all those who were in in ICE detention centers as of October 2011.

Table 3. Most serious charge for ICE detainees by frequency, October 2011

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Source: TRAC.

Court Backlog

S. 744, the current immigration proposal, mandates the appointment of additional immigration judges. This could help clear the large and growing backlog in immigration courts. This backlog could be part of ICE’s motivation for bypassing immigration courts at a higher rate (presuming, as data suggest, that the agency is actually doing so).

Between 1998 and 2013, the backlog of cases in immigration courts increased by over 150 percent. The increase may be partly attributable to Operation Streamline, which began in began in December 2005 in the Del Rio Border Patrol Sector. The operation requires that “all prosecutable aliens, regardless of nationality, apprehended within the geographic boundaries be prosecuted.” Since that time, Border Patrol has initiated several similar operations across the southwest border, and the number of pending cases has nearly doubled.

Figure 7. Number of pending cases in immigration courts, FY 1998—2013


Source: TRAC. FY 2013 figures as of April 2013.

During the same period, the average processing time for immigration courts increased by nearly 175 percent.

Figure 8. Immigration court processing time for all types of charges


Source: TRAC. FY 2013 figures include only October through April.

An Incomplete Picture

As noted above, deportations and ICE funding have hit record numbers in recent years. On its face, this suggests that immigration enforcement has increased as well. However, court activity around deportations has fallen, and unauthorized immigrants who reach immigration court now stand a much better chance of being allowed to stay in the U.S.

Unfortunately, ICE has not released data that fully explain how these trends fit together. Data suggest that the Obama Administration’s use of immigration courts in deportation proceedings is declining. However, it is unclear how much of this is due to the deportation of previously-deported individuals, to the increased use of administrative proceedings, or to some other factors. In turn, this makes it difficult to determine how heavily ICE emphasizes the deportation of criminals. TRAC, which has endeavored to make these data public for years, has issued strongly-worded rebukes of the quality and quantity of data that ICE maintains and provides.

It is certain that the Obama Administration has deported unauthorized immigrants in record numbers, and that immigration courts have become much more likely to allow immigrants to stay in the U.S. The largest take away, though, may be that the available information makes interior enforcement difficult to assess.

About the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Immigration Task Force. Founded in 2007 by former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George Mitchell, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) drives principled solutions through rigorous analysis, reasoned negotiation, and respectful dialogue. Like BPC’s other projects, the Immigration Task Force combines politically-balanced policymaking with strong, proactive advocacy and outreach. The Task Force is chaired by former Governors Haley Barbour and Ed Rendell, as well as former Secretaries Henry Cisneros and Condoleezza Rice. For more information, please visit This analysis originally appeared here.