To hear the Immigration and Customs Service (ICE) tell it, criminal aliens—non-citizens who have been convicted of crimes—are an endangered species.
The number of criminals arrested by ICE's "fugitive immigration teams" was a record 30,408 in 2007, nearly double the 15,462 arrested in FY2006. The increase is attributed to deployment of dozens more such teams throughout the country.
The figures are from a slick press release issued by ICE in December. The press release goes on to describe the mission of the fugitive program:
"ICE established its Fugitive Operations Program in 2003 to eliminate the nation's backlog of immigration fugitives and ensure that deportation orders handed down by immigration judges are enforced. The teams prioritize cases involving immigration violators who pose a threat to national security and community safety. These include child sexual exploiters, suspected gang members and those who have convictions for any violent crimes."[ ICE Fugitive Operations Teams arrest more than 30,000 in FY2007, December 4, 2007]
Before you exhale, consider this:
In fact, the number of fugitive aliens arrested may be far less than ICE says it is. According to the 2006 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, ICE made 8,776 criminal arrests in "all immigration related categories" in FY2006. That's about half of what ICE claimed for fugitive arrests alone.
The Yearbook is considered the authoritative source for federal enforcement statistics.
But we digress. If ICE is being straight with us, and is indeed arresting 30,000+ absconders annually, we should see a big pop in deportations. After all, the ultimate goal is not to arrest or to incarcerate criminal aliens. By law, they must be deported.
So what do the latest deportation stats say? Alas, even the redoubtable Yearbook stutters:
"Note: Tables 38 to 42 appearing in the 2005 Yearbook on aliens removed or expelled from the United States are not included in the 2006 Excel tables pending data review and revision."
Are deportation statistics really that complicated? Read on.
The 2005 Yearbook reported a total of 208,521 deportations in FY2005, of which 89,406 were criminals. (Note that not all criminal aliens are caught by the fugitive immigration teams). At those rates our jails and streets would be emptied of criminal aliens in a few years.
But there is a big caveat: the deportation figures double- (or triple-, or [fill in-a-number]-) count repeat deportees. Some criminal deportees stay in the border towns where U.S. immigration agents drop them off. There they await their chance to slip back into the United States, where "sanctuary policies" often prohibit police from reporting them to immigration authorities.
And incredibly, some "deportees" never leave the U.S. at all. No criminal alien, no matter how depraved, can be held for more than 180 days while awaiting deportation. So said the United States Supreme Court in Zadvydas v. Davis. (But see Antonin Scalia's dissent for why the Court is wrong.) During that time lawyers bring appeals, advocates obstruct, family members beg politicians, and courts issue injunctions. Certain countries—Cuba for example—simply refuse the return of any felon they've exported to the U.S. But the U.S. government counts them as "deportees" anyway.
When released, many deportable criminal aliens resume their criminal activities—until they are arrested again by one of ICE's fearless fugitive operations teams.
The arrest-deportation revolving door can spin indefinitely. Meanwhile, the government's enforcement statistics maintain their own spin.
Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.