Deportations are down. In the 2017 fiscal year, which ended in September, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 226,119 people—14,000 fewer than the previous year. Barack Obama broke records by deporting more than 3 million people during his eight years in office. But no one should confuse a drop in deportations under Donald Trump with leniency.
There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of deportation: those which kick people out of the country quickly for getting caught crossing the US-Mexican border, and those which round up people who are already living in the United States—the “interior.” One big reason for the decrease in deportations is that fewer people are crossing into the country from Mexico. That pool of easy stat-boosters had already been drying up under Obama, and it continues to decline—though in its end-of-year report, ICE claimed that the trend could reflect “an increased deterrent effect” from the agency’s “stronger interior enforcement efforts.”
If one looks only at what are called “interior removals,” Trump has deported more people than Obama did in his final two years. In fact, in his first eight months in office, Trump deported 61,094 people from the interior, 37 percent more than Obama did in the same period in 2016.
ICE arrests are also up under Trump. Between his inauguration and September 30, ICE arrested 42 percent more people for immigration violations than it did over the same period in the previous year. Immigration-court backlogs are key to understanding why Trump’s deportation numbers aren’t even higher: If a person has lived in the country for more than two years and has not been previously subject to a deportation order, they’re entitled to a hearing before an immigration judge. Processing those cases takes time.
As it is, Trump has authorized his agents to do things that other administrations declined to do. Obama said that he was focused on removing “felons, not families.” These days, anyone who’s deportable—from restaurant-owning, decades-long residents to DACA-approved Dreamers—is a priority. ICE is now willing to arrest people with no criminal record, people who are guilty only of immigration violations. Even ICE’s gang-enforcement operations—designed, supposedly, to capture the most hardened criminals—have netted a disturbing number of people with no criminal record. It’s an unleashing that, to immigrants, feels like a kind of terrorism.