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Over the past five years, activists, academics and the news media have stressed that the Obama administration has removed nearly 2 million undocumented immigrants, and is on pace to deport more than any other White House in U.S. history.
The truth is that the U.S. is actually deporting fewer people than it did before — but the way in which it is doing so has never been so punitive.
There are two ways in which someone can be forced to leave the U.S. The first is by removal, which the federal government defines as “the compulsory and confirmed movement of an inadmissible or deportable alien out of the United States based on an order of removal.” The second is by return, or “the confirmed movement of an inadmissible or deportable alien out of the United States not based on an order of removal.” That was formerly referred to as a “voluntary departure.”
In fiscal year 2013, the United States removed 368,644 people who were in the country without authorization. That’s down from a record 419,384 the year before. In 2012 — the last year for which federal statistics for both removals and returns are available — the US deported a total of 649,352 people, down from President Bill Clinton’s all-time high of 1,864,343 in fiscal year 2000.
When it is defined as the sum of removals and returns, our understanding of deportation changes. Deportations are not at all-time high levels, but removals are. The Obama administration has removed a record number of immigrants over the past five years, but it’s inaccurate to say that it has deported a record number.
The distinctions between the two might not seem like a big deal — they both result in people leaving, often against their will — but there are some key differences that are worth considering. Removal comes with an automatic five- or 10-year ban on applying to re-enter the country; if apprehended a second time, migrants could face incarceration and a 20-year or lifetime ban from re-entry. The repercussions of return, or voluntary departure, are less harsh. In some cases individuals are allowed to remain in the country for a short period to tie up loose ends. Voluntary departure also comes with shorter bars to re-entry, or no bar at all if one has been in the U.S. for less than 180 days. But both removal and return require an individual to leave the country by order of the federal government, and both should be counted in the total number of deportations.
What has changed is the way people are deported. Today deportation is more permanent, and the consequences more severe.
The history of deportation from the U.S. is deeply intertwined with the history of Mexican migration. The number of removals, returns and total deportations was negligible until 1942, the year authorized and unauthorized Mexican migration spiked at the start of the Bracero program, a binational agreement that brought 4.5 million Mexican laborers to the U.S. over the course of 22 years. The expiration of the Bracero program coincided with the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which, for the first time, put a numerical limit on immigration from the Western Hemisphere. This combination led to a dramatic increase in the number of migrants considered to be “illegal,” which, in turn, resulted in unprecedented numbers of apprehensions and deportations.
For most of the 20th century the federal immigration bureaucracy lacked the resources to apprehend and deport an increasing number of unauthorized Mexican migrants, forcing it to rely on returns and fear campaigns meant to induce “self-deportation.” As an Immigration and Naturalization Service official testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor in 1969 stated, “Taking into account the large volume of illegal entrants across the Mexican border, the service policy is to grant voluntary departure in these cases.”
Source: Department of Homeland Security
Even if the INS had wanted to rely on removal, which would have required longer periods of detention and expensive court proceedings in already overburdened immigration courts, it did not have the resources to do so until recently. Instead, the service relied on returns, which minimized lengthy detention stays, avoided immigration hearings and, in some cases, shifted travel costs to deportees themselves.
Deportees preferred returns as well. When presented with the option of staying in the country to fight their case or leaving immediately via return, most deportees opted for the latter — in part because the INS gave them an incentive to. Choosing the former would have meant being detained for an indeterminate amount of time and potentially facing harsher consequences if apprehended in the future.
As a result, from 1965 until 1996 there were never more than a handful of removals for every 100 returns, with the latter closely mirroring the total number of deportations.
Source: Department of Homeland Security
Beyond the numbers
To understand deportation we must go beyond the numbers and examine what the rise of removals means for deportees.
The criminalization of unauthorized migration has turned repeat immigration violations into felony offenses, punishable in some cases by years of incarceration. A congressional mandate requires Immigration and Customs Enforcement (one of the successors to the INS) to detain an unprecedented 34,000 people in immigration detention centers each day. Moreover, the U.S.-Mexico border is more militarized, and unauthorized migration is more expensive and dangerous, than ever before. It was more difficult for deported migrants to re-enter the U.S. in 2013 than at any previous point in history.
These factors combined have resulted in an increasing number of families separated by deportation. The U.S. deported more than 200,000 parents of U.S.-citizen children between 2010 and 2012, and a more recent report estimated that 5,000 children have been placed in foster care after one or both of their parents were deported.
Deportations may not be at record high levels, but the consequences of being deported have never been so devastating.
Adam Goodman is a historian and freelance writer based in Mexico City
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.