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Who's the Real Deporter-In-Chief: Bush or Obama?

John Moore / Getty Images

If you don’t follow the immigration debate closely, you may be a bit confused. The left is increasingly angry with President Obama, calling him the “deporter-in-chief.” That’s because the total number of deportations during Obama’s tenure recently passed 2 million. As Dara Lind wrote last week at Vox, that pace puts him on track to “have deported more people by the end of 2014 than George W. Bush did in his entire eight years.”  Immigration groups like America’s Voice and publications like Mother Jones have made the same point.  

The right is mad at Obama, too—but for the opposite reason. They say he’s deporting far fewer people than Bush, and has failed to adequately enforce the country’s immigration laws. Responding to Lind’s piece, and more generally to the arguments of the left, Sean Davis of The Federalist accused her of “deport[ing] the truth on immigration stats,” protesting: “Obama is most definitely not the leading deporter of all time. In fact, total deportations in 2012 were the lowest they’d been since 1973.” You can hear similar arguments from right-leaning places like The National Review and think tank the Center for Immigration Studies.

How is it possible that the two sides could look at the same data and see such different things? The key is how you define the term “deport”—and what you think about a broad change in policy that started during the Bush administration and has continued under Obama.

Under Bush, the majority of immigrants that the U.S. sent home were simply “returned.” Nobody took their fingerprints or put a permanent mark on their immigration records. Instead, U.S. authorities put them on buses and sent them back across the border. Between 2001 and 2008, there were over 8.3 million of these informal “returns,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. There were, by contrast, just 2 million “removals.” Those are the more formal deportations—the ones that go through some form of individual review, with an officer if not a judge, and become part of deportees’ permanent records.

But in the second half of the Bush administration, DHS decided to up the number of “removals” and limit the number of “returns.” The government hoped to deter immigrants from sneaking back into the country by making it clear that the U.S. knew who they were—and could punish them more harshly if they showed up again. Under Obama, DHS has stuck with this policy. Between 2009 and 2012, the number of deportations and informal returns was roughly the same—about 1.6 million each. Add up all the relevant numbers, you’ll see removals are on track to end up higher under Obama than Bush (Lind’s point in Vox) but that removals plus returns will end up higher under Bush than Obama (Davis’ point in The Federalist).

Here is where the debate becomes more subjective, because it’s really about which actions are important and which ones aren’t. Obama critics on the left say it’s wrong to treat removals and returns equally, since removals carry permanent, more serious consequences. If you have one on your record, it’s a felony to cross the border again; reentering makes you a top target for DHS agents; and your chances of ever gaining legal status go down. “I don’t know why we’re having a conversation about the numbers—the question is, what are the results?” said Benjamin Johnson of the American Immigration Council. “As somebody who cares about immigration policy, it’s a weird and unfortunate construct. I think the people calling him deporter-in-chief are doing it because he’s punishing them through the immigration system.”

Conservatives say that distinction is overblown—that what really counts is the sheer number of people the U.S. is sending back to their countries of origin. “The primary difference between the two categories is that removals are processed by ICE, while returns are not,” wrote Andrew Stiles at National Review. (He added that Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas says Obama has “artificially inflated the number of removals” during his tenure.)

Of course, these philosophical debates mask some genuine ambiguity about the statistics themselves. Bush oversaw a lot more returns, but, experts note, it’s hard to say how many more individual immigrants he actually deported. Many people tried and failed to make multiple border crossings. Each one would count in the statistics separately. This is true of all immigration data, but experts say it’s much more true of returns, just because the record-keeping is so informal. Even attempting to compare Bush’s numbers to Obama’s is “a fool’s mission,” says Ruthie Epstein of the ACLU. Even though it’s likely more people were escorted back over the border under the last president than this one, we’ll never know how many.

And then there’s the broader question about how well the numbers reflect what the Obama administration is actually trying to do. The immigration courts have a backlog of 363,239 immigration cases—all people the government is attempting to deport—according to TRAC, a data analysis project at Syracuse University. Meanwhile, the U.S. has poured money into blockading the border, making the trek more costly and dangerous, and the Mexican economy is doing better, relative to the U.S. economy. This reduces the incentive to leave. In this light, any apples-to-apples comparison of Bush's policies with Obama's is meaningless.