Court-ordered deportations decreased by 43 percent between the 2009 and 2013 fiscal years, according to new Department of Justice data released Wednesday. That statistic, which includes the last four months of the former President George W. Bush’s presidency, may help to bolster the Obama administration’s argument that federal immigration officials are now focusing on detaining and deporting criminal immigrants, but other immigrants are still caught in deportation proceedings.
The data found that in the 2013 fiscal year, immigration judges ordered deportations for 105,064 cases, down 56 percent from 185,426 cases ordered in 2009. Fewer immigrants wound up in immigration court in 2013 (187,678 cases) compared to in 2009 (254,537). And the sharpest drop in court-ordered deportations came in 2011, after then-Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director John Morton issued a memo directing federal immigration agents to focus on detaining criminal immigrants rather than immigrants without criminal records.
Department of Homeland Security spokesman Peter Boogaard confirmed to the New York Times on Thursday, that “the exercise of prosecutorial discretion had led enforcement agents and visa officials to file fewer deportation charges.”
Court-ordered deportations comprised about one-third of the 368,644 removals carried out in 2013. Border deportations accounted for the other two-thirds. As Dara Lind at Vox.com explained, “border” deportations can include immigrants living within 100 miles of the actual border, regardless of length of residency. Lind wrote that while those immigrants caught at the border are theoretically provided an immigration hearing, the Obama administration had increasingly deported people in the “border zone” through a process known as “expedited removal.” It is unclear from the DOJ data how many court-ordered deportations were a result of these border apprehensions. Although the DOJ report shows that President Obama has slowed down the court-ordered deportation rate, he is on track to deporting more immigrants overall than any other president.
The DOJ data doesn’t go into specific charges, but the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) found that since 2008, the most serious charge for nearly half all deportees was for an immigration or traffic violation.
According to the New York Times, “the share of cases in which judges decided against deportation and for allowing foreigners to remain in the United States has consistently increased, to about one-third last year from about one-fifth in 2009.”
An increase in court victories can partially be attributed to better access to legal representation to fight deportations: New York launched a pilot legal representation program to provide public defenders for immigrant detainees and a 2013 federal ruling required ICE to provide legal representation to immigrants with mental disabilities. One study found that 97 percent of immigrant detainees without legal representation lost their case, while 74 percent of those with legal representation had successful outcomes.
Despite the drop in court-ordered deportations, undocumented immigrants who would otherwise qualify for discretion, like those having strong familial ties, are still getting caught in the deportation dragnet. Maria Esmeralda Cornejo, an undocumented parent of three U.S. citizen children under the age of ten, may become another deportation statistic by the end of April if an immigration judge decides that she should go back to Mexico.
Border officials first apprehended and deported Cornejo in 2000 when she was caught coming into the United States without papers. She reentered the country later that year and had been living and working in Ohio until 2013 when police pulled her over for speeding. After running a background check, police found her illegal entry charge and handed her case to ICE, who put her in deportation proceedings. By federal immigration standards, the illegal reentry charge qualified as a felony, so Cornejo has become a high-priority deportation case. Her lawyer, Julie Nemecek, is hoping that immigration officials will exercise prosecutorial discretion and has requested a stay of removal.
Cornejo told ThinkProgress on Thursday that she was afraid of going back to Mexico not only because she would have to uproot her children. “The little one cries a lot,” Cornejo said. “She doesn’t want to go to Mexico because someone can kill her.”
“She’s a very involved parent,” Nemecek added. “Her daughters were getting bullied and she actively sought out a bilingual school in Columbus. Her daughters aren’t just good students. They’re the role models for the school. Every time a new student comes in, they’re the ambassadors.”
“Sometimes in my class, I look up news and they say lots of bad things about Mexico,” Cornejo’s nine-year-old daughter, Jocelyn said. “I have my friends and my school here. I speak a little Spanish, but writing and reading is hard for me.”