The history of the 1996 immigration laws tells a story of unintended consequencesCongress seems to have passed laws that treated some immigrants more harshly than lawmakers anticipated. Regardless of what Congress intended, the effects of the 1996 lawsparticularly on families in the United Stateshave been widespread and devastating.
Aggregate statistics released annually by immigration authorities reveal that since 1997 (when the 1996 laws went into effect), a total of 672,593 immigrants have been deported for criminal convictions. Figure 1 shows that the annual number of deportees has risen most years and predictably jumped the most (61 percent) between 1996, before the new laws took effect, and 1998, when they had been in place for a full calendar year. Each year subsequently, with the exception of 2002 and 2005, the numbers have risen steadily.
Large numbers of these non-citizens deported for crimes receive their deportation orders after appearing in immigration proceedings without an attorney, often speaking with the help of whatever interpretation services the court normally uses. Figure 2 shows that in 2005, 65 percent of immigrants represented themselves in their deportation hearings before the immigration court.
Non-citizens deported for criminal offenses come from the same countries and regions of the world as all immigrants living in the United States. Therefore, the bulk of those deportedor 93 percentare sent to countries in North and Central America and the Caribbean, as shown in figure 3. Mexico receives by far the largest number of immigrants deported for criminal convictions, shown in figure 4.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency within the Department of Homeland Security only recently has made data available about the criminal convictions that form the basis for deportations from the United States. For reasons that are unclear, in its regular press updates the agency always touts its deportations of violent criminals, but keeps vague the other categories of immigrants deported. The secrecy surrounding the criminal convictions forming the basis for deportations has been remarked upon by many attorneys, academics, and statistical researchers. In fact, Syracuse University, which maintains a special immigration data analysis unit, recently observed,
In its regular press releases, instead of simply disclosing all of the offenses that form the basis for deportations, ICE prefers to highlight the worst, most violent offenses. In one press statement, announcing the deportation of 562 criminal aliens, ICE chose to highlight presumably three deportees who were removed for aggravated assault, drug trafficking, and lewd and lascivious acts on a child. Details on criminal convictions for the 559 additional immigrants deported were not provided. The same release quotes Marc Moore, San Antonio ICE field office director for detention and removal operations:
In another press advisory, ICE announced its deportation of 144 criminals, highlighting three non-citizens who were deported for sex offenses or stalking, and referring to other individuals who were deported for crimes such as homicide, heroin and cocaine smuggling, fraud, weapons offenses, sexual assault, prostitution, and extortion.93 In yet another release, ICE chose to highlight the deportations of two men: a Brazilian who was convicted for assault with a deadly weapon, domestic assault and unlawful possession of a firearm; and a Jamaican who was deported for unnatural acts upon a child; providing obscene materials to minors; assault and battery; breaking and entering; larceny; and possession of a controlled substance. But the agency failed to describe the crimes of the 756 other immigrants deported during the same ICE operation.94
As figure 5 reveals, newly public data on the underlying convictions for deportations in fiscal year 2005, which were released by ICE at the end of 2006, show that 64.6 percent of immigrants were deported for non-violent offenses, including non-violent theft offenses; 20.9 percent were deported for offenses involving violence against people; and 14.7 percent were deported for other crimes, unreported by ICE. Figure 6 breaks down these numbers into more specific offenses for 2005, showing that drug crimes, immigration offenses, assault (non-sexual), and other crimes are the top four most common criminal convictions, totaling 81 percent of all deportations on criminal grounds in that year.
Applying these percentages from 2005 to the aggregate number of persons deported since 1997 allows us to estimate that 434,495, or nearly half a million people, were non-violent offenders deported from the United States in the 10 years since the 1996 laws went into effect. In addition, we can estimate that 140,572 people were deported during that same decade for violent offenses.
These broad estimates fail to answer important additional questions. When Human Rights Watch commenced research for this report, we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with ICE to answer basic questions about the legal status of those deported for crimes (how many were green card holders and how many were undocumented), the nature and seriousness of the criminal convictions forming the basis for deportations (e.g. how many convicted of shoplifting, how many of homicide) and the family relationships of those deported (how many had US citizen or lawfully present spouses and children). Human Rights Watch delayed publication of this report for one year while we waited to receive a response to our FOIA request.95 Unfortunately, as detailed in the Appendix, we have not received the information requested. Worse, the history of ICEs response to our repeated requests suggests at best a lack of commitment to transparency and the goals behind the FOIA legislation; at worst it suggests deliberate stonewalling.
If ICE had responded to our FOIA request, we would have been able to fill in at least some of the blanks left by the publicly available data. That data, for example, do not reveal how many of the 672,593 non-citizens deported for crimes were lawfully present in the country and how many were undocumented. The data also provides the public with little basis for judging the fairness of the deportations in light of the crimes for which the deported immigrants were convicted because criminal categories used by ICE are so broad as to be almost meaningless. The broad category of sex offenses may include acts like consensual underage sex (prosecuted as statutory rape), as well as violent rape. The category of drugs no doubt includes high-level drug traffickers as well as immigrants deported for simple possession of small amounts of narcotics.
Although Human Rights Watch cannot make reliable estimates of the legal status of the deported immigrants nor the offenses triggering their deportations, we can make reasonable estimates of how many spouses and children were left behind as a result of these deportations. The 2000 US Census found that the 6.3 million households with a foreign-born non-citizen householder96 in the United States had an average household size of 3.44 persons.97 If that average household size holds true for the foreign-born non-citizens being deported from the United States for criminal offenses (that is, deportee plus 2.44 relatives in each household), then we can estimate that at least 1.6 million family members, including husbands, wives, sons and daughters, have been separated from loved ones by deportations since 1997.
We can also estimate that many of these relatives are US citizens and lawful permanent residents. The 2000 US Census found that US citizens represented 33 percent of all members of foreign-born households. This means that since the harsh immigration laws were passed in 1996, an estimated 1.6 million spouses and children, of whom approximately 540,000 were US citizens by birth or naturalization, lost a loved one to deportation. (We have found no way of reliably estimating the numbers of lawful permanent residents within the families of deported immigrants.)
91 Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, Immigration Report, How Often Is The Aggravated Felony Statute Used? Syracuse University, 2006, http://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/158/ (accessed March 1, 2007).
92 ICE Removed More Than 3,000 Criminal Aliens, Status Violators from South Texas During June, Office of the Press Secretary, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Public Affairs, July 11, 2005, www.ice.gov/pi/news/newsreleases/articles/ 050711santonio.htm (accessed May 30, 2007).
93 Philadelphia ICE Deports 144 Criminals, Office of the Press Secretary, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Public Affairs", June 22, 2005, www.ice.gov/pi/news/newsreleases/articles/050622philadelphia.htm (accessed May 30, 2007).
94 ICE Removes 758 Criminal Aliens from 5-State Area During July, Office of the Press Secretary, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Public Affairs, August 15, 2006, www.ice.gov/pi/news/newsreleases/articles/060815neworleans.htm (accessed May 30, 2007).
95 On the eve of publication of this report, on June 19, 2007, Human Rights Watch received correspondence in response to our administrative appeal in which ICE claimed it could provide records responsive to three of the five types of information we had requested: the country of origin of each non-citizen deported on criminal grounds from 1997 to the present, their immigration status, and the crime forming the basis for the deportation. Contrary to the provisions of FOIA regarding payments for information, ICE has assessed fees without responding to our application for a fee waiver as an organization that publicizes information in the public interest about the operation or activities of the [US] government. We have appealed this finding of the agency.
96 A householder is usually the household member or one of the household members in whose name the housing unit is owned or rented. US Census Bureau, Profile of the Foreign Born Population in the United States: 2000, December 2001, p. 430.
97 Ibid., p. 4; US Census Bureau, Table FB1-Profile of Selected Demographic and Social Characteristics for the Non-U.S. Citizen Population, Census 2000 Special Tabulations (STP-159), 2000. See also US Census Bureau, Immigration Statistics Staff, Population Division, American Community Survey, 2003 (revealing that 50 percent of the non-US citizen population was married with their spouse present, and 8 percent were married with their spouse absent).