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An Immigration-Enforcement Fairy Tale from the New York Times

Article author: 
Jessica Vaughan & Steven Camarota
Article publisher: 
National Review
Article date: 
November 11, 2017
Article category: 
National News
Article Body: 

The New York Times recently highlighted a new analysis of immigration-enforcement data that is sure to be used in the coming months to undermine the initiatives of the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress. The Times article, by staff writer Eduardo Porter, argues that years of “tough” enforcement under Obama failed to improve conditions for working Americans. Been there, done that, as it were, in response to President Trump’s call for tougher enforcement.

This analysis is deeply flawed, for two reasons. First, it uses inappropriate, incomplete, and doctored enforcement statistics to present a misleading picture of recent enforcement trends. Second, Porter relies heavily on a working paper and a forthcoming analysis by pro-immigration economist Giovanni Peri of the University of California, Davis, to argue that enforcing immigration laws does not help natives and in fact harms the economy. Let’s examine the arguments on enforcement first. Porter states that “President Barack Obama went on a deportation spree in his first term.” To illustrate this “deportation spree,” he includes a bar graph labeled “Immigration Shock.” It claims to show annual interior apprehensions by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the leading interior enforcement agency, from the period 2000 to 2015. The graph depicts a distinct “surge” beginning in 2008 and accelerating in 2009 before dropping off in 2013. This is meant to show that enforcement was ramped up considerably in the Obama administration...

The first problem with this is that Porter chooses apprehensions, or arrests, as a metric to illustrate a deportation spree. But an arrest is not the same as a deportation, and is not by itself an ideal metric for measuring the effectiveness of enforcement. Not all those arrested for immigration violations are deported. Why not just show deportations, since those statistics also are available?

Further, especially under Obama’s “prosecutorial discretion” policy, a significant number of the aliens arrested by ICE officers were released after only a short time in custody. Some of these individuals had their charges dropped or thrown out of immigration court; others were let out of custody on bond or under “supervision,” but skipped out on their hearings and melted back into the illegal population. In fact, according to our calculations, the number of interior deportations over the period 2009–2015 (1.15 million) is only 63 percent of the number of interior apprehensions (1.84 million), illustrating that a very large number of those apprehended by ICE in the interior during this time were never deported from the country. If illegal immigrants who are arrested at some point nonetheless remain in the country, then so does their labor-market impact, undermining the enforcement-does-not-help-native-born-workers argument advanced by Porter’s piece.

It gets worse. These statistics aren’t just an unsatisfactory measure of enforcement; they are also inexplicably doctored, in a way that changes the timing and shape of the enforcement surge. The apprehension totals in the bar graph, which are sourced to the Department of Homeland Security and to Peri, do not match the official statistics published on the DHS website...

Data quality would not be an issue if Peri and Porter had simply used deportations as the appropriate metric. But, inconveniently for their argument, there was a steady decline in interior deportations under Obama, not a “spree” of interior deportations as Porter asserts. (Unfortunately, reliable and consistent official data on interior deportations prior to 2009 is not available; we obtained the post-2008 data illustrated in the graph directly from ICE, during discovery in a lawsuit.) In every year of the Obama administration, the actual number of people deported from the interior of the United States fell, from approximately 235,000 interior deportations in 2009 to 70,000 in 2015...

Finally, and most germane to the argument pushed by Porter’s piece, the interior enforcement that occurred under the Obama administration was focused almost entirely on criminal aliens targeted by ICE after an arrest on state or local charges — not on worksite-enforcement operations aimed at discouraging the hiring of illegal workers. Under the Obama administration, 87 percent of the aliens removed from the country were convicted criminals, and most were apprehended in jails, not in worksite operations...