Bryan Caplan  

My Deportation Index: The Drum Critique

BLS Overstates Drop in Labor S... Illiberal Reformers is Hearten...
Kevin Drum thoughtfully critiques my Deportation Index.  But first, he makes my numbers look pretty:


His critique begins with some some data I didn't know about.
The next step is to calculate this as a percentage of the number of illegal immigrants in the country each year. Here it is:

His punchline:
This is approximate, since the total population of illegal immigrants is a little fuzzy before 2000. But it's close enough. Obama still has a higher removal rate and a lower index rate than any other president, but the winner for the title of Deporter-in-Chief is...Ronald Reagan. Every president since then has been successively more tolerant of a large undocumented population.
It's a thought-provoking point.  For the typical immigrant, justified fear of deportation peaked under Reagan, then almost continuously declined.  But when we're playing Lord Acton ("Suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong"), does it make sense to adjust for the population of potential victims?  Or should we just count the victims?  I honestly don't know.

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Wallace Forman writes:

Am I reading the second graph correctly... doesn't the rate jump for Reagan in 1986 because of the amnesty for many illegal immigrants?

If that is the case, then using that data to describe Reagan as the Deporter-in-Chief seems exactly backwards...

Harry Painter writes:


That makes a lot of sense to me.

George Mason writes:

Wallace is on the right track regarding the second graph, but I don't think it's because of Reagan's amnesty.

Look at the chart of estimates of the illegal population. The key numbers are:

1974: 1,116,000
1980: 3,000,000
1983: 2,093,000

So, a big Carter drop appears because of a tripling of the illegal population in 6 years, and a big Reagan rise appears because it falls by a million people only 3 years later, before the amnesty.

I wouldn't put much stock in these population estimates, or any numbers derived from them.

Hazel Meade writes:

What does the trend line for total illegal immigrant population look like?

I wonder if the decrease in deportations under Obama might be because the illegal immigrant population leveled off so that more of them are now long-term residents protected by DACA and DAPA.
If there are fewer recent arrivals, that may explain fewer deportations.

Similarly a declineing trendline as a percentage of population might just be because new arrivals are an ever smaller percentage of the total illegal immigrant population, and only new arrivals tend to be deported.

Max writes:

I am stumped. How can we know the total illegal population? I mean, if they were recorded wouldn't they have been removed at the same time? Is it an educated guess? Based on what? Why does the precision of the numbers get better after 2000?

Daniel writes:

Seems like the way to interpret these numbers is Clinton had a lower propensity to issue deportation-equivalents than Reagan, but a higher ability to, and hence issued more. So if we want to judge each president's character, or decide which one we would want to elect today, per-capita numbers seem better, but if you want to judge total damage, total numbers are better.

Hazel Meade writes:

Just looking up a few numbers, it appears that about 3.7 million people are eligible for DAPA and another 1.6 million are eligible for DACA, giving a total of 5.3 million protected aliens, slightly less than half of the total population on illegal aliens estimated to be living in the US. That's a large percentage.

According to this chart ( the illegal immigrant population leveled off around 2007/2008. That was 10 years ago.

So it seems likely that a large percentage of that 11 million total has been here for at least 10 years or longer, and around 50% of that total is protected by DACA or DAPA (which is unsurprising for a group of people who have lived here for a very long time).

Hazel Meade writes:

So, just to make the point clearer ( sorry for the multiple replies), we might be sort of scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of deporting illegal aliens who are actually problematic people, or who aren't people it would feel morally wrong to deport. It's possible the reason removals rose under Obama even while deportations fell is because the people now being deported have been here a long time, and really don't want to leave. Trump recently announced that he was going expand deportations of criminal aliens to more minor crimes - is that because there just aren't that many illegals left who have committed major crimes? It would look pretty silly if he spent the campaign railing against criminal aliens only to deport barely more people than Obama did.

Moreover, maybe the populist anger over illegal immigration is wildly overblown. There aren't that many illegal immigrants, we're not getting that many new ones anymore (and haven't been for several years) and the ones who are here have mostly been here for a long time and have settled productive lives. The anger directed at them by working class whites is misplaced.

Joseph K writes:

I have to disagree with Drum. I don't think you should adjust for the size of the population. Adjusting for population makes sense for something like crime or mortality. If a city grows, some of those added people will be law-abiding citizens and some will be criminals, so you'd expect crime in absolute terms to go up. Similarly, if more people are driving more, auto fatalities will inevitably go up. So, these you should adjust for population (as well as for miles driven in the case of auto accidents).

But if you increase the number of illegals in this country, there's no reason to assume that the number of deportations will automatically go up. If the various organizations in charge of rounding up and deporting those illegals remain unchanged, you'd expect deportations to also remain unchanged.

Deportations are only going to go up if you change the law or policy or devote more resources to finding and deporting illegals. The downward trend line in Drum's graph is purely the result of the growing population of illegals and thus gives us no information about government action. So, I'd say that Clinton still counts as deporter in chief.

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