The number of deportations has fallen nationwide over the past year, following Obama’s announcement of a new immigration enforcement initiative that instructs the Department of Homeland Security to go after “felons, not families.”
That plan, known as the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), allows immigration officials to exercise prosecutorial discretion to determine whether immigrants — notably felons and recent border crossers — should be made a priority for removal, as defined by guidelines set by Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson last November.
PEP replaced a more controversial information-sharing program known as Secure Communities, which gave local authorities broader discretion to detain immigrants. The Obama administration had previously come under fire for its harsh deportation policies, with some immigrant advocates labeling the president as the “deporter in chief.”
But since last November, deportations have fallen by 25 percent nationally — a statistic that has gone hand-in-hand with a drop in the number of detainers, or “immigration holds,” allowing immigrants to be held in local jails until federal immigration authorities have a chance to pick them up for potential deportation proceedings. The government has also closed the deportation cases of thousands of immigrants who don’t fit under the new PEP guidelines, granting some of them work permits.
A July 2015 Migration Policy Institute report found that only about 13 percent of “unauthorized immigrants in the United States would be considered enforcement priorities under these policies, compared to 27 percent under the 2010–11 enforcement guidelines.” These previous memoranda were published by the Obama administration in 2010 and 2011 to target immigrants, specifically those who are national security threats and do not have family ties in the United States.
In particular, Minnesota experienced a steep drop in deportations, which are down by about 50 percent from a high in 2010. According to the Star Tribune, which based its data on the 2015 fiscal year, “the St. Paul field office for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 1,740 immigrants compared with more than 2,820 the year before.” The PEP deportation initiative, which is focused on “smart, effective enforcement” has had a small, but positive effect on the number of deportees with criminal convictions, with 80 percent in the St. Paul field office regions and 60 percent nationally, the publication noted.
The PEP initiative has also made an impact in Nebraska. “In keeping with the trends reported nationally, we have observed a marked decrease in the use of ICE detainers locally,” Charles Shane Ellison, the Legal Director at the advocacy group Justice For Our Neighbors-Nebraska, told ThinkProgress. “One of our programs at Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska, the Pro Bono Detainee Project, has witnessed a 56 percent decrease in the number of intakes we have received from individuals detained in Nebraska this year as compared to last year.”
Although the immigration enforcement initiative appears to be working by certain measures, advocates say the recent reforms don’t go far enough. Some undocumented immigrants who otherwise would qualify for deportation relief are still finding themselves picked up. Others are finding that they aren’t released from detention.
“Recent statistics show that although fewer people have become subject to immigration detainers, only approximately 19 percent of those targeted have felony convictions,” Matthew Kolken, an immigration lawyer based in Buffalo, New York, told ThinkProgress.
Carolina Canizales, the deportation defense coordinator at the advocacy group United We Dream, cited the case of Jose Luis Sanchez, a 24-year-old undocumented immigrant who has been in immigration detention since 2014 for pot possession, a misdemeanor charge.
“We continually hear stories from our community on people being picked up for immigration and misdemeanor charges,” Canizales told ThinkProgress. “The reality is that most people who end up in the enforcement machine do so because of immigration-related reasons. The impact of the enforcement priorities is a double-edged sword. People like our current case, Jose Luis, are still facing deportation even though it is clear that the administration, the states, and Congress have identified that our criminal justice system is out of control and these are the exact cases that must be dropped.”
“Statistically speaking it does not appear that the new program is focusing our immigration enforcement resources on the apprehension of serious criminals,” Kolken said, “and families are still being destroyed by deportations.”