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The numbers do no favors for America’s deporter-in-chief

Are unauthorized immigrants living quietly in the United States more likely to be deported under president Barack Obama’s administration? Or less? It’s a harder question to answer than you might think, as is often the case when politics mixes with data.

One thing that seems clear, at first: More people are being deported. In 2013, 368,644 people were removed from the US, lower than the previous five years but still some 60,000 more than in 2007, when the Bush administration increased spending on border security.

This doesn’t make the immigrant advocates, Hispanics and Asians in Obama’s political base happy. But these statistics have been brandished at Republican lawmakers by the administration to show that Democrats are tough enough on border security to be trusted with comprehensive immigration reform, which would authorize more foreign residents and create a path to citizenship for the 11.5 million unauthorized immigrants here. (Though if that’s the strategy, it doesn’t seem to be working very well: So far, those who oppose immigration reform aren’t convinced.)

Today, the New York Times burnishes that draconian image with a review of the last decade in deportation data, noting that contrary to Obama’s promise to focus his immigration enforcement on law-breakers, two-thirds of the deportations on his watch were people who had committed minor infractions or none at all. Findings like that, on top of the increase, have led to anger in immigrant communities—not exactly what Democrats are looking for as they scramble to avoid losing further legislative seats in an a tough election season this fall.

But that data needs perspective, too. A key piece of the necessary context concerns how the government defines its borders and what exactly US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does at those borders. A recent investigation of deportation data by the Los Angeles Times explains more.

One reason that the number of people deported for minor or no crime has increased stems from a change in procedure at the Mexican border: Previously, when border patrol officers found immigrants coming over from Mexico, they were simply detained and sent back, with little formal paperwork. In the late nineties, the number of people informally bused back over the border reached a million a year. Now, Mexicans trying to cross the border illegally are more likely to be charged and formally deported, goosing statistics upward. Indeed, all of the increase in deportations under Obama came within 100 miles of the border, thanks to a bipartisan push to spend more on border security in the last decade. (Another side effect of that push is an increasing problem with border patrol offers deploying excessive violence.)

Meanwhile, deportations of unauthorized immigrants from further inside the US declined more than 40%, to 133,551 last year—and four out of five of those deported had criminal convictions, though it is not clear how serious they were. That’s more in keeping with the story the Obama administration likes to tell of laying off established immigrant communities who aren’t causing trouble—reflecting policy changes that ended raids on worksites looking for unauthorized immigrants, curtailed the role of local police in enforcement, and offered limited immunity from deportation to law-abiding immigrants who entered the US as children.

For immigrant communities, seeing a family member booted across the border for running a red light hardly seems fair, even if fewer in the interior of the US experience that treatment. For some advocates of stricter enforcement, on the other hand, any unauthorized immigrants are too many. In wooing both these constituencies with data, the Obama administration has won neither, and seems no closer to fixing the broken system with comprehensive reform.

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