CHICAGO -- Last Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," President Obama said that fixing our broken immigration system is one of the top priorities of his second term. He promised to introduce legislation this year to get it done.
No doubt the president felt the need to reiterate this well-worn pledge after two weeks of holiday-related news coverage detailing the impact that his administration's unprecedented deportations have had on immigrant communities across the country. Those news features were kicked off by the Department of Homeland Security's announcement that a record 409,849 individuals were deported in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
Those with only a passing interest in the issue might be forgiven for assuming that immigrants who were shown the door were the kind of people who pose a threat to our communities and our nation's security.
Unfortunately, this was not exactly true. And the subtle misrepresentation about the types of people who are being expelled calls into question how these latest statistics will be used to either hammer the president for not doing more to keep illegal immigrants in the country or to again raise the specter that his immigration books are cooked just as compromises on reforms are being negotiated.
Though John Morton, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, stated that 55 percent of those deported were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors -- about twice the number of people in such categories deported in fiscal year 2008 -- the immigrants in question are not overwhelmingly murderers, gang-bangers or drug pushers we'd normally assume them to be.
According to Bryan Johnson, an immigration attorney and blogger in New York, the only reason that ICE is breaking deportation records is because Border Patrol apprehensions are also counted. When these individuals are caught a second time crossing the border, they are then prosecuted for illegal re-entry, a federal felony.
Johnson told me he thinks DHS and the administration "want to make it look like they're prioritizing their efforts, but I think they're intentionally shifting numbers so that they look like they're deporting more and more criminals when in fact they're not -- they're simply destroying more families."
While the distinction may not mean much to those who want to send all illegal immigrants packing, it actually causes two harms. First, it contributes to the incorrect, though popular, belief that simply being present in this country without the proper documentation is a criminal offense -- it's usually only a civil offense, most often for overstaying a visa.
Second, it creates the illusion that limited resources are being spent getting hardened, dangerous criminals out of our communities, when it is not quite the case.
Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Policy Center, agrees that whether because of purposeful intent to paint deportation statistics in the best possible light -- or simply because the quirks of government reporting produce un-nuanced, aggregate numbers that don't tell the whole story -- it's important for those interested in our immigration policy to understand what the numbers really mean.
A soon-to-be released report from her organization will detail how these intricacies reflect an increasingly sweeping and punitive U.S. immigration enforcement environment.
"During the course of the Bush and Obama administrations, DHS and ICE have tried to show they're tough on enforcement to try to soften the ground a little bit for eventual immigration reforms," Giovagnoli said in an interview. "But ever since 2005 when Operation Streamline ordered federal criminal charges for every person crossing the border illegally, the system is on auto-pilot to criminalize immigrants, subjecting them to the most vigorous enforcement with few mechanisms for getting out of the system.
"Ironically, these large numbers can be used to say that we're at a tipping point and that the administration should find ways to bring the system back into balance by providing more opportunities for relief."
As immigration returns to the national discourse, President Obama would surely benefit from clearing up rampant misperceptions surrounding his administration's deportation numbers -- and championing policy changes that will ensure that enforcement measures focus on the most serious threats to our nation's safety.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.