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When the US government released its deportation statistics for fiscal year 2013 last December, officials noted that more than half (60 percent) of the 368,000-plus immigrants deported had criminal convictions. The Obama administration has long claimed that it focuses enforcement on serious criminals – on “aliens convicted of crimes, with a particular emphasis on violent criminals, felons, and repeat offenders" – and the new numbers, officials claimed, bore that out.

But do they? It's hard to say, since the administration didn't release a breakdown of the types of convictions that triggered the deportations, instead dividing up the convictions into the rather vague, uninformative categories of "Level 1," "Level 2," and "Level 3."

There are reasons to be skeptical that the bulk of deportees are in fact serious criminals. Take a look at the recently released breakdown for 2012 of the top 10 most common categories of crimes for which people are deported. Number one, for the first time ever, is “immigration,” a category that includes offenses like falsely claiming US citizenship and (the most common) illegally entering or reentering the United States. Twenty-four percent of so-called “criminal aliens” had such immigration crimes as their most serious conviction. The second most common category of convictions is “criminal traffic offenses,” which did not even appear in the top 10 until 2008 but now accounts for 23 percent of the total. (Previous Human Rights Watch investigations have revealed similar discrepancies between the government's characterization of deportees as dangerous criminals and the reality; an update covering the Obama administration is forthcoming.)

Until fairly recently, crossing the border illegally was treated as a civil, not criminal, offense. Only in the last decade have these prosecutions skyrocketed to the point that illegal entry and reentry are the most prosecuted federal crimes. In other words, the Obama administration has been at least as successful at turning non-criminal migrants into criminals as at apprehending and deporting actual criminals. As Human Rights Watch detailed in a  2013 report, these prosecutions increasingly involve immigrants with minor or no criminal history who are trying to reenter the United States to join family members, who often are US citizens.

By touting its numbers and claiming that immigration enforcement is focused on deporting serious criminals, the Obama administration has fed the dangerous misperception that unauthorized immigration in and of itself represents a threat to public safety. And the US government is spending billions of dollars and breaking apart tens of thousands of families every year, all in the name of going after this phantom menace.

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