All Commentary
Sunday, March 5, 2017

Was Obama Really the “Deporter in Chief?” Not Even Close

But Democrats hardly have a track record of being immigrant friendly.


Immigration activists repeated named Obama the “Deporter in Chief.”  Were they right?  Strictly speaking, yes: More human beings were deported under Obama than any other presidency in history.  Substantively, however, the critics were very wrong.  Key fact: U.S. immigration law – and U.S. immigration statistics – makes a big distinction between full-blown deportations (“Removals”) and “voluntarily” returning home under the threat of full-blown deportation (“Returns”). 

The distinction is not entirely cosmetic.  If you re-enter after Removal, you face a serious risk of federal jail time if you’re caught.  If you re-enter after a mere Return, you generally don’t.  But Return is still almost as bad as Removal, since both exile you from the country where you prefer to reside.  Since I’ve previously suggested that we should count each Return as 85% of a Removal, I’ve constructed a “Deportation Index” equal to Removals + .85*Returns to capture the substance of U.S. immigration policy.  Check out the numbers:

YearRemovalsReturnsDeportation Index
197731,263867,015768,226
197829,277975,515858,465
197926,825966,137848,041
198018,013719,211629,342
198117,379823,875717,673
198215,216812,572705,902
198319,211931,600811,071
198418,696909,833792,054
198523,1051,041,296908,207
198624,5921,586,3201,372,964
198724,3361,091,203951,859
198825,829911,790800,851
198934,427830,890740,684
199030,0391,022,533899,192
199133,1891,061,105935,128
199243,6711,105,829983,626
199342,5421,243,4101,099,441
199445,6741,029,107920,415
199550,9241,313,7641,167,623
199669,6801,573,4281,407,094
1997114,4321,440,6841,339,013
1998174,8131,570,1271,509,421
1999183,1141,574,8631,521,748
2000188,4671,675,8761,612,962
2001189,0261,349,3711,335,991
2002165,1681,012,1161,025,467
2003211,098945,2941,014,598
2004240,6651,166,5761,232,255
2005246,4311,096,9201,178,813
2006280,9741,043,3811,167,848
2007319,382891,3901,077,064
2008359,795811,2631,049,369
2009391,341582,596886,548
2010381,738474,195784,804
2011386,020322,098659,803
2012416,324230,360612,130
2013434,015178,691585,902
2014407,075163,245545,833
2015333,341129,122443,095


Notice: Despite the rise in Removals under Obama, Returns crashed.  Obama’s Deportation Index, therefore, falls as soon as he takes office – and then declines further every single year!  By 2015, Obama’s D.I. is half its 2009 value and about one-third of its previous peak under Bush II.

Does this mean Democrats are the genuine friend of the immigrant?  Not exactly.  Here are the average D.I.s for every president from Carter to Obama.  The last column adjusts for population in millions, which, as you can see, makes the pattern even more extreme.

PresidentAverage D.I.Average D.I./Pop/10^6
Carter776,0193,471
Reagan882,5723,718
Bush I889,6573,534
Clinton1,322,2154,861
Bush II1,135,1753,861
Obama645,4452,068


Yes, while Obama has the lowest D.I. of any president over the last four decades, the real Deporter in Chief was none other than fellow Democrat Bill Clinton. Adjusting for population, no one else even comes close.  Indeed, while I’m very confident that Trump’s D.I. will exceed Obama’s, it’s far from clear that Trump will manage to displace Clinton from the top spot.  (Betting odds: I’ll give 4:1 that Trump’s average D.I. when he leaves office will exceed Obama’s, but only even money than he’ll exceed Clinton’s).

The lesson, as usual, is that we should look past surface rhetoric to the bedrock of numbers.  While both Democrats and Republicans casually equate Clinton and Obama, their immigration policies were as different as day and night.

Republished from EconLog.


  • Bryan Caplan is a professor of economics at George Mason University, research fellow at the Mercatus Center, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and blogger for EconLog. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.