Republican nominee Donald Trump made a significant switch in his immigration policy last week, shifting from calling for the deportation of all illegal immigrants to prioritizing criminals and others posing a threat to public security.
The move aligns his policy more closely with that of the Obama administration, which has deported more people than any other president’s administration in history.
According to government data, the Obama administration removed more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders between 2009 and 2015, while his predecessor George W. Bush deported just more than 2 million during his time in office.
The Obama administration also spent a record $18 billion on immigration enforcement in 2012 – more than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined. Border apprehensions are at a four-decade low, according to Pew, mirroring a drop in apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border and signaling that the so-called influx of drugs and crime has slowly abated.
Thus, even with Trump’s new promise to narrow his focus on the deportation of criminals, it would seem the era of mass deportations would continue under a Trump presidency. The Obama administration has for years targeted felons rather than families and unaccompanied children without papers during deportation raids. It’s a surprising play for the Republican candidate, who recently even praised Obama’s work on immigration enforcement.
“What people don’t know is that Obama got tremendous numbers of people out of the country. Bush, the same thing. Lots of people were brought out of the country with the existing laws. Well, I’m going to do the same thing,” Trump said last month to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly.
Just days later, Trump delivered a highly anticipated speech on immigration in Arizona.
“Anyone who has entered the United States illegally is subject to deportation. That is what it means to have laws and to have a country. Otherwise we don’t have a country,” said Trump.
“Our enforcement priorities will include removing criminals, gang members, security threats, visa overstays, public charges,” he continued. “That is those relying on public welfare or straining the safety net along with millions of recent illegal arrivals and overstays who’ve come here under this current corrupt administration.”
Trump’s new immigration stance is a far cry from the campaign rhetoric throughout his primary, when the real estate mogul criticized the Obama administration for being too lax on illegal immigration and promised that anyone who illegally entered the U.S. would be forced to leave.
“We have at least 11 million people in this country that came in illegally,” he said in a February debate. “They will go out.”
The current administration has increasingly targeted felons, gang members, suspected terrorists and recent illegal border-crossers in its deportation raids for years. According to the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s website, the highest priority are those who “pose a threat to national security, border security, and public safety.” In fiscal year 2015, 81 percent of the removals were included in this category.
ICE’s second priority for deportations are “repeat misdemeanants and new immigration violators,” and the third are all those who have arrived after January 1, 2014.
The latter group includes Central American families, who are fleeing gang violence and homicide in the Northern Triangle, and the policy aims to stop families from sending unaccompanied children on the potentially fatal trek north. The Obama administration recently expanded its refugee program to accommodate some of these refugees, but critics argue that many of those refugees who reach the U.S. border are still being returned too hastily and are not getting a fair shot at claiming refugee status.
One aspect of Trump’s shifting immigration policy that may differ from Obama’s is the focus on immigrants with expired visas.
“Beyond violating our laws, visa overstays, pose – and they really are a big problem – pose a substantial threat to national security,” Trump said at the Arizona rally last week. “We must send a message that visa expiration dates will be strongly enforced.”
Around 500,000 people stayed in the U.S. after their visas expired in 2015, constituting 40 percent of the nation’s undocumented immigrant population. By comparison, Pew estimated in 2006 that 4.5 million had overstayed their visas.
Trumps said that ICE agents would carry out deportations, but failed, once again, to provide further details on how to boot so many people out of the country.