Amid high-profile legislative failures and general chaos, the conventional wisdom holds that the Trump administration has, at the least, succeeded in imposing its hard-line will in one arena: immigration enforcement.
But that narrative isn’t so simple, either. The Washington Post reports that, according to statistics that date to beginning of September, the Trump administration has actually deported fewer people — 211,068 — than the 240,255 the Obama administration had removed from the country at this time last year. This is despite the fact that arrests are up 43 percent over the same period.
There are a few explanations for the surprising numbers.
1) Illegal border crossings have dropped precipitously since Trump took office, one way in which the administration’s harsh rhetoric appears to have had a clear effect.
2) There is also an enormous backlog of about 600,000 immigration cases in U.S. courts, which has risen in tandem with the increase in arrests. (The Trump administration sent several immigration judges to the U.S.-Mexico border to speed up deportation proceedings there, a strategy that appears to have made the problem worse.)
3) As the Post notes, Trump’s immigration hawkishness has mobilized fundraising support for advocacy groups and pro bono lawyers. Largely a background issue for many Americans during the Obama years, immigration raids have become front-page news and stoked outrage.
That’s partly because Immigration and Customs Enforcement has become much more aggressive under the Trump administration than it was in the waning days of the Obama presidency. The government is allowing immigration agents to exercise wide discretion in whom they arrest, abandoning a policy that prioritized people with serious criminal records and very recent arrivals to the country. The agency has arrested more than 28,000 undocumented immigrants who fall into that category, more than three times the number in 2016. They have picked up immigrants at courthouses, at church shelters, and at hospitals while their children underwent surgery. This catchall approach to enforcement has left many immigrant communities living in fear.
Trump administration officials also blame cities and towns for not handing over undocumented immigrants after they serve sentences in local jails — a move that would be clearly unconstitutional.
Just this week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced street-level operations in so-called “sanctuary cities,” seemingly as a signal that the agency can and will circumvent such restrictions.
Deportations reached a record high of around 400,000 in 2012 under President Obama. At the time, he was attempting to prove to Republicans that he was tough on the issue in an effort to facilitate a broad immigration deal in Congress. Instead, Obama earned the nickname “deporter-in-chief,” no deal was ever struck, and Republicans fully embraced nativism, to their great electoral benefit.