How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Deportations still high, but ICE numbers suggest first slowdown in years

ICE Holds Immigrants At Adelanto Detention Facility

John Moore/Getty Images

ADELANTO, CA - NOVEMBER 15: Immigrants prepare to be unshackled and set free from the Adelanto Detention Facility on November 15, 2013 in Adelanto, California.

A growing number of activists, and now Los Angeles city officials, have been calling on President Obama to halt deportations and expand protection to more immigrants.

And while Obama hasn’t expressed interest in doing so, it looks like the record pace of deportations seen in recent years may in fact be slowing down somewhat.

Last year, a record-breaking 409,849 immigrants were removed from the United States. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has yet to unveil its deportation numbers for all of fiscal year 2012, which ended Sept. 30, but ICE numbers released through Sept. 7 suggest a downward trend: 343,020 immigrants removed since last Oct. 1, when the fiscal year began.

That's fewer than during roughly the same time period in fiscal year 2012: By the end of August 2012, there had already been more than 366,000 immigrants removed from the U.S.

Not that 343,020 is a small number by any means, but then deportations have been climbing steadily for several years; since the start of fiscal year 2009, more than 1.9 million people have been removed from the country.

The seeming slowdown this year points to a few factors, for starters, that “they’re running out of the easy cases" as more people with some kind of criminal offense are targeted and deported, said Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at UC Irvine.

Toward the end of the last decade, the focus on criminal deportations first embraced by the Bush administration - and later by Obama - was far from well-honed. ICE agents searched homes for "absconders," people who had failed to comply with a deportation order or show up for a hearing. Whether that person was home or not, agents routinely arrested other occupants who were in the country illegally, even if otherwise law-abiding.

Secure Communities, an enforcement program that began in 2008, has also had a wider reach than intended. It allows local authorities to share fingerprints of immigrants taken at local jails with immigration officials, with the goal of finding and removing people with criminal records. But it's landed many non-criminals and minor offenders in deportation also.

Back in 2008, close to 70 percent of the immigrants removed that year did not have a criminal record, according to ICE. As recently as 2010, non-criminals continued to account for half of all removals, even as the Obama administration pushed the message that criminals were the target.

With this came harsh criticism of Obama's deportation policies, and "I think the Obama administration took the criticism seriously," DeSipio said. "They have become more focused."

So far this year, 58 percent of the immigrants removed are classified by ICE as "criminal," although there's no breakdown of how many are serious versus minor offenders. Only 42 percent of those removed are classified as "non-criminal."

But the policies aren't focused enough, say immigrant advocates, who have intensified their push for Obama to halt deportations, especially after immigration reform talks in Congress began falling apart this fall.

Activists have been aggressively calling for the president to take administrative action and protect immigrants from deportation, as he did with the deferred action program that began in 2012. That program offers two years of temporary legal status and work permits to qualifying young immigrants who arrived before age 16.

At a protest Monday in downtown Los Angeles, outside a federal facility that processes deportees, several protesters chained themselves to ladders to prevent buses with immigrants on board from leaving.

“We are sending a message to President Obama telling to him to stop all deportations and family separations," said Zacil Pech, a 24-year-old college student who had chained herself to one ladder with a bike lock around her neck.
 
As of the end of August, close to half a million young immigrants had benefited so far from deferred action. Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network in Los Angeles, said the program had a twofold effect in 2013.
 
“When the president exercised his authority with deferred action, it not only helped the immigrants who received the benefit of the decision, it also helped put immigration reform back on the national agenda,” Newman said.
 
So far, President Obama has said he's not interested in expanding deferred action to more people, but pressure continues.

On Wednesday, the Los Angeles City Council approved a resolution calling on President Obama to to expand deferred action to unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. until there's a comprehensive immigration overhaul.

Several lawmakers have pledged to take up immigration reform again after the beginning of the year, although the climate may not be ideal with the 2014 primaries on the horizon.

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