President Trump claims he's kept his campaign promise to dramatically ramp up the pace of deportations, but new data suggests little has changed statistically since the Obama era.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) tallied 35,604 "removals" in January and February of this year, compared to 35,255 in the first two months of 2017, according to figures obtained by The Guardian on Monday.
The numbers seemingly call into question the widely held assumption that ICE has stepped up enforcement under Trump, a perception buoyed by frequent media reports in recent months about immigration arrests in public places, sometimes involving people with no criminal record or protection from deportation under Obama-era policies.
Immigration officials have repeatedly insisted that ICE has simply continued with business as usual since Trump took office. After a five-day "targeted enforcement action" that saw 160 people rounded up across the Los Angeles area in February, for example, ICE said in a statement that "the rash of recent reports about purported ICE checkpoints and random sweeps are false, dangerous, and irresponsible."
Trump, meanwhile, has played up the arrests as proof that a "crackdown" is underway. He also signed an executive order during his first week in office that essentially makes any person who is the country without authorization a target for deportation, reversing Obama administration guidelines that had prioritized people with criminal records.
"The crackdown on illegal criminals is merely the keeping of my campaign promise," Trump tweeted after the February arrests in Los Angeles. "Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed!"
Mexico's consul general in Los Angeles told the Guardian that arrests and deportations of Mexican nationals under Trump have been "much less than the average with President Obama." The paper reported that 193 Mexicans have been arrested in Los Angeles county since Trump's inauguration, with roughly 50 deported.
With only two months of data available, it's probably too early to say for certain that the pace of deportations remains unchanged under the Trump administration. A closer look at the numbers also shows that the perceived crackdown could be the result of ICE agents making more "community arrests," where suspects are arrested in their homes or public settings such as workplaces and courthouses.
During the 2016 fiscal year, ICE averaged about 1,250 "apprehensions and removals" per week, but only a small percentage of these involved "community arrests," according to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Clearinghouse, which found that most of the people being picked up and deported by ICE were already in custody at jails and prisons.
During the last stretch of the Obama administration, according to preliminary estimates from the Syracuse data suggest, fewer than 300 people were arrested each week "from their place of work, where they lived, or other places." Similar data isn't available yet for the Trump era, but it's possible that ICE is simply arresting more people in places where it's bound to attract media attention, stoking fear and paranoia about an immigration crackdown.
Either way, Trump still has a long way left to go before he catches up with the record number of deportations that occurred during the Obama era. During his eight years in office, Obama kicked more than 2.7 million people out of the country, more than any of his predecessors, which led critics to brand him the "deporter-in-chief."
Deportations fell for the second year in a row in 2016 and hit their lowest level since 2007, when George W. Bush was still in office, but that's not necessarily an indication that Obama was soft on enforcement, as Trump and other Republicans have claimed. It's a reflection of the fact that authorities have been catching fewer and fewer people at the border. Border Patrol "apprehensions" in 2016 were up slightly from the previous year, but the total was still among the lowest recorded since 1971, according to the Pew Research Center.
Overall, immigration from Mexico — both legal and illegal — has been on a steady decline. Between 2009 and 2014 more Mexicans were returning home to Mexico than were arriving in the U.S., according to Pew. That same trend could explain why Trump's tough talk on deportation isn't backed up by hard data — at least not yet.