Is it accurate or misleading to label former President Barack Obama the United States’ “Deporter-in-Chief”?

Immigrant rights activists suggested that Obama was the United States’ “Deporter-in-Chief” due to the record-high number of alien removals that took place during his presidency.  Critics on the other side of Obama’s policy have accused his administration of not taking enough action to deport illegal immigrants.  There are important nuances to consider in each implication of Obama’s record.

Evidence shows that Obama’s administration was responsible for the largest number of illegal immigrant removals compared to any other president in our nation’s history at 3,094,208 removed over the course of his two terms. However, it is important to look further into this statistic to see what it really shows us about Obama’s immigration enforcement.

Before diving into interpretation of this statistic, one must develop a fuller understanding of the vocabulary that defines various illegal immigration statistic components. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) defines removals versus returns as the following:

Removals are the compulsory and confirmed movement of an inadmissible or deportable alien out of the United States based on an order of removal. An alien who is removed has administrative or criminal consequences placed on subsequent reentry owing to the fact of the removal.

Returns are the confirmed movement of an inadmissible or deportable alien out of the United States not based on an order of removal.

Removals and returns refer to deportation statistics, where deportation is defined as a general, nontechnical term describing the movement of a noncitizen out of the United States through either a formal removal or a return.  Moreover, border apprehension refers to an action by immigration enforcement officers to take physical custody of a noncitizen.

Knowing the variation in terminology allows us to dive deeper in examining the deportation records of previous administrations.

The 24% increase in funding for federal immigration enforcement in 2012 is a top contributor to the higher numbers seen in Obama’s presidency in comparison to his predecessors. However, when we look at the Apprehension and Return statistics, we find that the Total Deportations that took place under Obama did not exceed those of prior administrations’, and were in fact substantially lower.  An interesting note is that Clinton’s Total Deportation numbers exceed the Bush administration by nearly 2 million.

This figure can be found here.

Looking at the bigger picture, it makes more intuitive sense as to why the figures for Obama’s removal numbers exceed those of previous presidencies.  His administration directed their focus towards targeting non citizens who posed a security threat or committed crime on U.S. soil, and also who recently arrived in the U.S. illegally, for the removal method of deportation.  Alongside Obama’s stricter removal policy enforcement, there is a notable decrease in border apprehensions and return deportees. The decline of both these figures far outweighs the increase in removals.

Economics blogger, Bryan Caplan, created a Deportation Index to distinguish between “full-blown deportations (“Removals”) and “voluntarily” returning home under the threat of full-blown deportation (“Returns”).”  A visual representation of Caplan’s findings gives further insight into which presidents sent home the highest number of illegal immigrants:

According to this index which places a lower emphasis on the number of returns, Reagan and Clinton sent home the highest number of non citizens in total.  To appropriately analyze Barack Obama’s immigration policy, it is crucial to properly define and understand the meaning of the statistics in reference. Though it is true to say his removal numbers were history’s highest, it would be partial to label Obama as “Deporter-in-Chief” and to claim he didn’t do enough in enforcing immigration control would be ambiguous.  

Barack Obama: Deporter-In-Chief?