Donald Trump was the self-described “law and order candidate,” who vowed five days after he won the U.S. presidential election to immediately deport 2 to 3 million undocumented immigrants who had committed crimes. Now, 91 days into his presidency, new figures show he has fallen far short of that promise.
Between Trump taking office on January 20 and March 13, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 21,362 undocumented immigrants and deported 54,741 people. Compared to the same period last year, this marks both an increase and a decrease. Under Trump, arrests are up by 33 percent, but deportations are down by 1.2 percent.
The comparatively small drop in deportations is not necessarily a sign that the law and order candidate has gone soft. Unlike arrests, deportations are not instantaneous acts. But it signals that Trump so far hasn’t been able to carry out his campaign promises to push for mass deportations and arrests. He hasn’t even managed to beat former President Barack Obama’s record. Under the Obama administration, ICE agents arrested 29,238 undocumented immigrants in the first few months of 2014.
For a Democrat, Obama took a fairly tough stance, particularly early in his presidency, toward undocumented immigrants. In March 2014, Janet Murguía, president of the National Council on La Raza, a Latino advocacy group, called Obama “the deporter-in-chief.”
It was a criticism that activists leveled at Obama throughout his presidency. From 2009 to 2016, his administration oversaw the forcible removal of more than 3 million undocumented immigrants—most of whom were sent back to Mexico. Neither Bill Clinton, nor George W. Bush, Obama’s two predecessors, came close in reaching his tally over their two terms.
Obama’s immigration policies softened with time as Latino activists increasingly put pressure on his administration. In 2013, forcible removals peaked at 434,015 people, a figure unrivaled by Bush or Clinton. By 2016, this had fallen to 344,354 immigrants, slightly lower than Bush’s peak of 359,795 in 2008.
Obama directed his administration to focus on undocumented immigrants who had committed crimes and people who had recently crossed the border. In November 2014, he split these people into three categories for immigration officials to target. The biggest priority were “noncitizens apprehended immediately at the border, gang members, and noncitizens convicted of felonies or aggravated felonies.” Next were people who had been “convicted of three or more misdemeanors or one serious misdemeanor” and had arrived in the U.S. after January 1, 2014, as well as migrants abusing visa programs. The third priority was immigrants who had been issued with an order of removal on or after January 1, 2014.
In November 2014, Obama sought to protect undocumented immigrants who were the parents of U.S. citizens or U.S. permanent residents. Under a program known as DAPA, Obama hoped to give these parents a three-year renewable work permit and exempt them from immediate deportation. Obama also hoped to expand DACA, a similar program he introduced in 2012 for undocumented immigrants who had entered the U.S. as children. But in June 2016, the Supreme Court blocked the president’s executive actions on immigration in a deadlocked 4-4 vote after Republican governors challenged the policy because it had not been approved by Congress.
Five months later, Trump was elected president, and U.S. lawmakers began preparing for a new kind of immigration policy. Under Trump, U.S. officials can arrest and deport anyone who is in violation of immigration law, and there will be no exemption for certain categories of people as there was under Obama. Trump also plans to expand detention facilities for undocumented immigrants and widen the usage of expedited removal whereby the U.S. can deport an undocumented immigrant without them going before a judge. (When Obama was president, only people who had been in the country for less than two weeks and who were caught within 100 miles of the border were subject to this). Trump has also made it clear that parents bringing their children illegally into the U.S. will face deportation and prosecution.
To carry out his plans, Trump wants to increase the number of immigration enforcement officials and allow local police to act as immigration agents. He said he will cut federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities, which limit their cooperation with federal officials to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation. In all, his plan is expected to target up to 8 million immigrants, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis in February.
That hasn’t happened yet. But the effects of some of Trump’s immigration policies and their wide-ranging nature is already causing immense anxiety for undocumented immigrants and their families in the U.S. Obama might have been the deporter-in-chief, but during his presidency, millions of undocumented immigrants believed they were safe.