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Was Obama Really the “Deporter in Chief?” Not Even Close

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Was Obama Really the “Deporter in Chief?” Not Even Close

Immigration activists repeated named Obama the “Deporter in Chief.”  Were they right?  Strictly speaking, yes: More human beings were deported under Obama than any other presidency in history.  Substantively, however, the critics were very wrong.  Key fact: U.S. immigration law – and U.S. immigration statistics – makes a big distinction between full-blown deportations (“Removals”) and “voluntarily” returning home under the threat of full-blown deportation (“Returns”).

The distinction is not entirely cosmetic.  If you re-enter after Removal, you face a serious risk of federal jail time if you’re caught.  If you re-enter after a mere Return, you generally don’t.  But Return is still almost as bad as Removal, since both exile you from the country where you prefer to reside.  Since I’ve previously suggested that we should count each Return as 85% of a Removal, I’ve constructed a “Deportation Index” equal to Removals + .85*Returns to capture the substance of U.S. immigration policy.  Check out the numbers:

Year Removals Returns Deportation Index
1977 31,263 867,015 768,226
1978 29,277 975,515 858,465
1979 26,825 966,137 848,041
1980 18,013 719,211 629,342
1981 17,379 823,875 717,673
1982 15,216 812,572 705,902
1983 19,211 931,600 811,071
1984 18,696 909,833 792,054
1985 23,105 1,041,296 908,207
1986 24,592 1,586,320 1,372,964
1987 24,336 1,091,203 951,859
1988 25,829 911,790 800,851
1989 34,427 830,890 740,684
1990 30,039 1,022,533 899,192
1991 33,189 1,061,105 935,128
1992 43,671 1,105,829 983,626
1993 42,542 1,243,410 1,099,441
1994 45,674 1,029,107 920,415
1995 50,924 1,313,764 1,167,623
1996 69,680 1,573,428 1,407,094
1997 114,432 1,440,684 1,339,013
1998 174,813 1,570,127 1,509,421
1999 183,114 1,574,863 1,521,748
2000 188,467 1,675,876 1,612,962
2001 189,026 1,349,371 1,335,991
2002 165,168 1,012,116 1,025,467
2003 211,098 945,294 1,014,598
2004 240,665 1,166,576 1,232,255
2005 246,431 1,096,920 1,178,813
2006 280,974 1,043,381 1,167,848
2007 319,382 891,390 1,077,064
2008 359,795 811,263 1,049,369
2009 391,341 582,596 886,548
2010 381,738 474,195 784,804
2011 386,020 322,098 659,803
2012 416,324 230,360 612,130
2013 434,015 178,691 585,902
2014 407,075 163,245 545,833
2015 333,341 129,122 443,095

Notice: Despite the rise in Removals under Obama, Returns crashed.  Obama’s Deportation Index, therefore, falls as soon as he takes office – and then declines further every single year!  By 2015, Obama’s D.I. is half its 2009 value and about one-third of its previous peak under Bush II.

Does this mean Democrats are the genuine friend of the immigrant?  Not exactly.  Here are the average D.I.s for every president from Carter to Obama.  The last column adjusts for population in millions, which, as you can see, makes the pattern even more extreme.

President Average D.I. Average D.I./Pop/10^6
Carter 776,019 3,471
Reagan 882,572 3,718
Bush I 889,657 3,534
Clinton 1,322,215 4,861
Bush II 1,135,175 3,861
Obama 645,445 2,068

Yes, while Obama has the lowest D.I. of any president over the last four decades, the real Deporter in Chief was none other than fellow Democrat Bill Clinton. Adjusting for population, no one else even comes close.  Indeed, while I’m very confident that Trump’s D.I. will exceed Obama’s, it’s far from clear that Trump will manage to displace Clinton from the top spot.  (Betting odds: I’ll give 4:1 that Trump’s average D.I. when he leaves office will exceed Obama’s, but only even money than he’ll exceed Clinton’s).

The lesson, as usual, is that we should look past surface rhetoric to the bedrock of numbers.  While both Democrats and Republicans casually equate Clinton and Obama, their immigration policies were as different as day and night.

Republished from EconLog.

Bryan Caplan
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Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan is a professor of economics at George Mason University, research fellow at the Mercatus Center, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and blogger for EconLog. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

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