Jeremy Beck's picture

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  by  Jeremy Beck

In their April 6, 2014 story, "More deportations follow minor crimes, records show," New York Times reporters Ginger Thompson and Sarah Cohen make it clear in the first paragraph that the Times isn't going to give up on the "record deportations" claim, although Thompson and Cohen do confirm what other news outlets already have: deportations from the interior have declined since President Obama took office; and the administration's numbers have been boosted by processing border apprehensions as removals.

As the headline indicates, however, the point of the Times story isn't to settle the question as to whether the "record" claim is deceptive or deserved. The thrust of the story is that President Obama has not kept his promise regarding his deportation priorities. Thompson and Cohen write:

With the Obama administration deporting illegal immigrants at a record pace, the president has said the government is going after 'criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they're trying to figure out how to feed their families.'

But a New York Times analysis of internal government records shows that since President Obama took office, two-thirds of the nearly two million deportation cases involve people who had committed minor infractions, including traffic violations, or had no criminal record at all. Twenty percent -- or about 394,000 -- of the cases involved people convicted of serious crimes, including drug-related offenses, the records show.

The lengthy story is an impressive blend of analysis, human-interest anecdotes, and insight into the political calculations that went into establishing President Obama's deportation policies. The piece is also timely, running over the same weekend as a series of protests urging the White House to stop all deportations, both from within the United States and at the border.

There are two things that readers of the story should understand:

  1. The Times arrived at the "20 percent" figure by lumping deportations at the border in with those from the interior; and
  2. It is not clear that President Obama ever promised to stop deporting people at the border, regardless of their criminal histories.

Thompson and Cohen write, "The Times analysis is based on government data covering more than 3.2 million deportations over 10 years." They do not link to that data but if we look at deportations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in fiscal year 2013 alone, we find:

  • 59 percent of all ICE removals (border and interior) had previously been convicted of a crime; and
  • 82 percent of all interior removals had previously been convicted of a crime

The latter finding is close to the opposite of the Times headline. Instead of only 20 percent being convicted of crimes, it turns out that only 18 percent of deportees from the interior had not been convicted of crimes. Just as the Obama administration used border apprehensions to boost their statistics, the Times used border apprehensions to boost theirs. More than half of all removals under Obama have been border apprehensions. The Times considers illegal entry and felony illegal re-entry to be minor infractions. So by including the border apprehensions, the Times waters down the percentage of people with criminal records deported from the United States. A case could be made - and is being made by anti-enforcement groups - that deportations at the border are no different than deportations from the interior. Even so, the Times purpose is to compare Obama's record to his promise, and he never promised to stop deportations of non-criminals at the border.

When Obama said he would not go "after students, not after folks who are here just because they're trying to feed their families," it is not at all clear that he was suggesting people caught entering or re-entering the country illegally should not be sent back home. That is what the New York Times editorial board called for on April 5, one day before Thompson and Cohen's story ran. "Besides deferring some deportations," the editorial said, "the administration should adopt an array of policy changes, no matter what Congress. {DHS Secretary} Johnson needs to get Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol to make noncriminals and minor offenders the lowest deportation priorities." Emphasis added.

President Obama has done more than any recent president to reduce deportations from the interior of the United States. He has been clear about wanting most if not all persons working illegally in the U.S. to keep their jobs and be granted legal status. But he has never promised to stop deporting people caught entering the U.S. illegally. By suggesting that he has, Thompson and Cohen may be projecting the Times editorial board's desires onto the president.

There is one more odd aspect to the story, which many readers commented on. You have to get deep into the story to realize what the Times considers to be a "minor infraction." The reporters never give the criteria by which the Times determined the difference between "minor infractions" and "serious crimes," but judging by the profiles of people deported in the story, "minor infractions," according to the Times, includes misdemeanor assault, illegal entry, felony illegal re-entry, and driving under the influence.

Judging by the comments, the readers aren't buying it. Here are some excerpts from the top "Readers Picks" comments submitted by and recommended by New York Times readers:

  • "DUI's aren't "serious infractions"? Tell that to someone who lost a loved one to a drunk driver. This isn't a news story, it's a propaganda piece"
  • "Sorry NYT, this is one issue that this liberal can't get worked up about, and since when is drunk driving considered a minor crime?"
  • "I don't believe DWI , DUI or driving with a suspended or no licence are minor crimes. Please check MADD figures, but every 90 seconds someone is injured as a result of drunk driving and there were 10,322 deaths in 2012. Drunk driving costs the US $132 billion per year. 50%-75% of drunk drivers continue to drive on a suspended license. On average a drunk driver has driven 80 times drunk before his first arrest. So no I don't believe these are minor crimes at all."
  • "Is breaking Federal Immigration Law, as your very first action in the country, a "minor crime?" Along the same lines, what about using stolen social security numbers and driving without a license or insurance? Just wondering."
  • "Whether the deportees are major criminal, minor-criminals, or "law-abiding" (and how can we call them such when they are acting illegally by entering the country?) is unimportant. They are here illegally, and therefore subject to deportation. This is simply a non-story on all counts."

JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA

Tags:  
Illegal Immigration
Barack Obama

Updated: Wed, Apr 16th 2014 @ 8:35am EDT

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