This post is part of our new community-driven reporting project, Ask Immigration Decoded. Submit your questions, and we’ll answer the most popular questions on our blog, Immigration Decoded.
In this post, we’re answering a question we received from Diane Falkowski: How many immigrants without criminal backgrounds have been deported, leaving U.S.-citizen spouses and U.S. citizen children behind?
As of July 2010, Congress began requiring U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to ask people slated for deportation if they are parents of minor children who are U.S. citizens. Those questioned provide the information on a voluntary basis, and it is compiled into reports submitted twice a year to Congress. According to three recent years’ worth of data reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity, ICE deported a total of 87,351 people between 2015 and the end of 2017 who claimed to have at least one U.S.- citizen child.
In 2015, ICE counted 31,411 parents of minor citizen children deported. The number declined slightly to 28,860 in 2016. The number declined again to 27,080 in 2017. In the second half of 2017, a report shows, the number of deported people identifying themselves as parents of citizen children increased by 2,152 over the first half of 2017.
ICE officials said there is no data available yet for 2018.
Although ICE does issue reports containing estimates of deportees with criminal records, there is no publicly available data to cross-reference to determine how many deported parents of citizen children have or don’t have criminal records.
New detainee data, however, does provide insight into how many potential deportees, generally, have criminal backgrounds.
Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, a Syracuse University-based research organization, recently created a profile of detainees currently held in 217 ICE detention centers. As of June 30 of this year, ICE was holding 44,435 people in custody. Out of this group, 58 percent had no criminal convictions. About 21 percent had committed a minor infraction, such a traffic violation; another 5 percent had committed an offense defined only as “other;” and 16 percent had committed what ICE considers a serious crime, which can include selling marijuana.
As TRAC put it, four out five detainees “either had no record, or had only committed a minor offense such as a traffic violation.”
With an increase in immigrant arrests generally, the official count for deportations of parents of citizen kids could rise significantly under President Donald J. Trump, predicted Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research institute in Washington, D.C.
“You’re hearing more stories of parents being deported,” Capps said. “There’s psychological distress for the kid because they don’t know what happened or what will happen.”
Children will end up “permanently separated” from parents who’ve been deported and have slim to no chance of returning legally, Capps said.
Capps also said that it’s possible that parents destined for deportation won’t disclose that they have citizen children out of fear that other household members could be targeted. Many immigrant families are a mix of undocumented and legal immigrant or citizen members.
Under former President Barack Obama, Capps said, immigrants facing deportation had more of an incentive to disclose that they had citizen children because the administration followed a policy of “prosecutorial discretion.” In practice, that meant that ICE officials during the Obama presidency were less interested in locating and deporting people with strong ties to the United States if they had no serious criminal record.
ICE’s priority for deportation were undocumented immigrants in the U.S. for a short period of time who had committed a felony. In 2015, over 80% of deportees were people who were convicted of a serious crime, according to an ICE enforcement and removal operations report.
Under, Trump, Capps said, immigrants “have a good idea that the [discretion] policy has changed.”
Before Trump, former presidents George W. Bush, a Republican, and Obama, a Democrat, had both urged Congress to pass legislation that would have created a path to earned legal status for some undocumented immigrants with deep roots. The legislation would have also included a mandate that American employers authenticate all hires’ requisite identification documents by using E-Verify, a digital system that is currently voluntary.
Trump’s approach represented a dramatic break. One week after Trump took office, Capps noted, he issued directives that “all lawful means” be used to deport anyone in violation of immigration laws, with no exceptions.
If you’re undocumented, “you should be uncomfortable,” Trump’s then acting ICE director Thomas Homan said during a June 2017 hearing before the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee.
Responding to a question about an undocumented high school student who’d been arrested by ICE, Homan added, “He should be looking over his shoulder. If he’s in the country in violation of the law and has been ordered removed, he should be worried that he’s going to be arrested.”
In January 2018, 39-year-old Michigan dad Jorge Garcia, a landscaper, was deported to Mexico after living in the U.S. for 30 years. Garcia, who had no criminal record, had been ordered deported in 2009. But he is married to a U.S. citizen and has two citizen children. ICE honored stays on Garcia’s court order of removal during the Obama administration.
Garcia had been living in the U.S. since he was 10 years old. His wife told the Detroit Free Press that Garcia had spent over $100,000 in legal fees and tried for years to find a pathway to permanent residency. Undocumented immigrants who try to obtain legal residency through marriage face the risk of being exiled from the United States for 10 years or more, as the Center for Public Integrity has reported. Garcia’s wife said that while Jorge’s deportation was stayed, he complied with ICE orders to attend regular check-ins with ICE.
But in November 2017, during a check-in with ICE, he was detained and told he had to leave the United States and return to Mexico.
“I feel like I’m lost,” he told the Detroit Free Press in an interview.
In Oakland, California, in August 2017, Maria and Eusebio Sanchez left the United States and were barred from returning for a decade after a 15 year fight for legal permanent residency. The couple worked in the U.S. for over 20 years, had no criminal records and were raising three U.S. citizen children. They have one Mexico-born child who is currently spared from deportation by the Obama-era Deferred Deportation for Childhood Arrivals program.
The couple were ordered deported in 2012 but were granted stays of removal until Trump took office. Over the years, Maria studied nursing and became an oncology nurse. She and her truck driver husband were given 90 days to arrange their departure to Mexico. They left their children in Oakland in the house they own—and put their oldest daughter in charge of the minor kids.
Before she departed, Maria, 46, told KQED San Francisco radio, that “the night of the  elections, as the map was turning red, it was like if somebody was stabbing me little by little.”
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has expressed outrage over Trump’s widening deportation net.
“The Trump administration has been implementing a mass deportation agenda since day one that has resulted in the deportation of moms, dads, [DACA] Dreamers and other immigrants with long-standing ties to their communities,” Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-New Mexico, and chairwoman of the Hispanic Caucus said in a statement provided to the Center.
In public remarks supporting aggressive deportations, Trump has often suggested that immigrants commit disproportionate rates of crime, although research doesn’t support his sweeping claim.
Susan Ferriss contributed to this report.