Bryan Caplan  

Who's the Real "Deporter in Chief"?

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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.

COMMENTS (14 to date)
RSF writes:,amp.html

I believe the Obama revised the definition to inflate his numbers. He gets credit in the stats for deporting people without actually doing it.

Dylan writes:

The true reason for the 90's economic miracle is discovered!

Andrew_FL writes:

By this logic all one needs to do to have a paradiscal immigration policy is make it so undesirable to come to the United States that you have no illegal aliens to deport in the first place.

Zachary Bartsch writes:

If returns are highly correlated with immigration in the first place, then it would not be surprising that returns dropped early during the Obama years (Due to the poor economy) . I wonder how much of your DI is determined by the economy versus administration policy.

Jon Murphy writes:

@ Zachary:

If returns are highly correlated with immigration in the first place, then it would not be surprising that returns dropped early during the Obama years (Due to the poor economy) .

That would make sense for the first year or two (2009-2010, say), but not the remaining 6 years of growth. The DI steadily declined throughout Obama's presidency.

Philo writes:

Dividing DI by total population is OK, but the denominator really should be either the number of illegals in the country or the (net) number that came in during the year. I suspect that Clinton's numbers look bad in part because the economy was booming and the number and the flow of illegals were unusually large. But accurate quantification of illegals is not available.

Hazel Meade writes:

I wouldn't put much weight in any of this. The US economy was very strong under Clinton which probably attracted more immigrants, and thus more deportations. Obama had a weak economy, so fewer immigrants, fewer deportations.
If you look at the overall trend, it looks like deportations are pretty strongly correlated with economic growth.

egl writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Epic writes:

To me, it looks like returns (people turned back at the border) dropped precipitously after 6/1/2009, when the REALID act began to require proof of citizenship for all border crossings. The difficulty of crossing prevented many Mexicans who were otherwise crossing back and forth regularly from doing so. Removals have leveled off in the high 300's, low 400s since there's been an increased emphasis on immigration enforcement. That pretty hard ceilings on the capacity in the system to handle more removals than that, and each additional removal after that is going to have much higher marginal costs. We've solved all the easy deportations, and any new ones are going to be very expensive (from a financial or personal rights perspective) to solve.

pyroseed13 writes:

I am confused by those in comment that argue that it is the economy that is driving the level of deportations. That makes sense for removals, but why would someone voluntarily return to their country if the economy is booming? The more plausible explanation is that the threat of deportation was greater under Clinton than Obama because Clinton signaled that he would enforce the immigration laws whereas Obama signaled that he would not.

Jeff G. writes:

I recall a post by Scott Alexander where he compared Trump's "murderers and rapists" comment to something Clinton said that was fairly similar. That's comparison makes a lot more sense now.

Trent McBride writes:

I think this analysis clearly misses an important part of the equation: the corrected D.I. ignores both the stock and flow of illegal immigrants (Mexican and otherwise) during these time periods. The simple fact is that the total number of undocumented Mexican immigrants doubled during the Clinton administration, nearly doubled under Bush, and has decreased under Obama. The net flow picture is similar. It's easier to claim Obama wasn't a big deporter when the border is tighter (fewer crossings) and there are less people to deport (small total pop).

Also, your D.I. is a little sensitive to your 85% variable. I would argue that a removal is way more than 20% worse than a return; one could reasonably disagree, but this difference is a good reason to look at those variables separately.

blink writes:

Very interesting comparisons! So it seems that what Obama really did what reclassify some who would have otherwise been in the "Return" group so that they faced the stiffer sanction of "Deported" while obviously slashing the total number of people sent home.

Is there an obvious motive favoring the change? Is there evidence that reclassification was indeed Obama's intent?

eric writes:

Political conditions in the immigrants' home
counties relative to those in the USA play a
significant role. These may or may not be simply related to relative economic conditions. BTW,
immigration by dissidents can make an play into
the hands of an oppressive regime by getting rid
of opponents.

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