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President Barack Obama stands with Vice President Joe Biden as he speaks about immigration in the Rose Garden at the White House, June 30, 2014. (AP/Charles Dharapak) President Barack Obama stands with Vice President Joe Biden as he speaks about immigration in the Rose Garden at the White House, June 30, 2014. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

President Barack Obama stands with Vice President Joe Biden as he speaks about immigration in the Rose Garden at the White House, June 30, 2014. (AP/Charles Dharapak)

Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde March 13, 2020

The facts behind Joe Biden’s claim on deportations under Obama

If Your Time is short

  • The number of people sent back to their countries based on returns at the border and formal orders was at least two times more during George W. Bush and Bill Clinton than under Barack Obama. 

  • Deportations based only on formal removal orders were higher under Obama compared with Bush and Clinton.

  • By the time Obama got to the White House, there was a more robust deportation system in place set up by the Bush administration.

Since former Vice President Joe Biden is proud of the working relationship he had with President Barack Obama, does Biden also take responsibility for Obama-era deportations?

Univision’s Jorge Ramos asked Biden that during an interview aired live Feb. 14 on the "Real America with Jorge Ramos" Facebook page.

Biden, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, said the deportations were a "big mistake" and that they "took too long to get it right." But he also claimed that deportations under Obama weren’t as high as they were under the two prior presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Here’s part of their exchange:

Biden: "Look, you had the last two administrations deport twice as many people as we deported — twice as many."

Ramos: "Your administration deported 3 million people. More than ever."

Biden: "No, no, no, because you had more people deported in the W administration, Bush and the Clinton administration."

Ramos: "I’m sorry, Mr. Vice President, but the numbers that I have from the Department of Homeland Security, you deported more than 3 million people, 1.7 (million) of them with no criminal record."

Biden: "But there were 5 million deported in the Bush administration, and more than that in the administration of Clinton."

Ramos: "I got to check those numbers."

PolitiFact also decided to check Biden’s numbers.

We found that Biden is right by one method of counting and wrong by another. Biden is right that Bush and Clinton deported twice as many people — if one is counting the number of people formally removed plus the number of people turned away at the southwest border in a less formal process.

But Biden is wrong if one only looks at the number of people deported under a removal order, a formal process that may involve a court order — and that’s the number that Ramos was citing.

Biden’s campaign told PolitiFact that Biden was referring to the broader deportation number.

Immigration experts told us both metrics can be used to quantify deportations. They just tell different stories.

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"Biden’s statement is (either) an exaggeration or an understatement depending on how you want to look at it," said Bill O. Hing, a professor and director of the Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic at the University of San Francisco.

Overview of deportation data

The Migration Policy Institute in January 2017 published a report on the immigration enforcement records of Obama, Bush and Clinton. (Fiscal years in the analysis: Clinton, 1993-2000; Bush, 2001-2008; Obama, 2009-2016.)

The nonpartisan research group collected data from the Department of Homeland Security and tallied about 5.3 million total deportations during the Obama administration, around 10.3 million during Bush’s tenure, and about 12.3 million under Clinton’s presidency. Those numbers are the sum of removals and returns.

"Removals" refer to the formal deportation of individuals, they include court-ordered removals and expedited removals without judicial review. The removals data includes people who lived in the United States and got picked up by immigration authorities within the country.

"Returns" refer to a procedure that allows individuals at the border to be returned to their home country without being placed in formal removal proceedings. It does not carry the same penalties as a removal.

"If you want to look at total deportations, it's absolutely true that Clinton and Bush had 

more than the Obama-Biden administration," said Randy Capps, director of research of U.S. Programs at the Migration Policy Institute.

"However, the vast majority of deportations under Clinton and Bush were at the border," Capps said. "During the Obama-Biden administration, there were far more interior arrests and deportations of people who were already in the country."

The MPI report defines deportation as "a general, nontechnical term describing the movement of a noncitizen out of the United States through either a formal removal or a return." The Department of Homeland Security defines deportation as "the formal removal of an alien from the United States when the alien has been found removable for violating the immigration laws."

The MPI found that Obama’s administration made around 3.1 million removals, compared with about 2 million under Bush and about 870,000 under Clinton.

Returns at the border were much higher under Bush and Clinton because there were more apprehensions, Capps said. When Bush and Clinton were in office there were usually more than 1 million apprehensions per fiscal year. They began declining in 2007 around the recession; during Obama’s tenure there were on average 400,000 apprehensions a year.

During the Bush and Clinton administrations, almost all of the people arrested at the southwest border were Mexican and were returned without a formal deportation charge. During Obama’s presidency, there was a surge in Central American families and unaccompanied children arriving at the border seeking asylum and placed in formal proceedings.

By the time Obama got to the White House there was also a more robust deportation system in place set up by the Bush administration and continued by Obama. Those enforcement programs included 287(g), Secure Communities, the Criminal Alien Program, and Operation Streamline.

After being criticized as "deporter in chief" in 2014 by immigrant advocates, the Obama administration set new deportation policies, making people without criminal records and those who had been in the country for a long time lower deportation priorities.

Our ruling

Biden said, "You had the last two administrations deport twice as many people as we deported — twice as many."

Biden is accurate by one metric, but wrong by another. The number of people sent back to their countries based on returns at the border and formal removal orders was at least twice as high during Bush and Clinton. But deportations based only on formal removals were higher under Obama compared with Bush and Clinton.

We rate Biden’s claim Half True.

Our Sources

Facebook, Real America with Jorge Ramos - Joe Biden interview, Feb. 14, 2020

MPI, The Obama Record on Deportations: Deporter in Chief or Not?, Jan. 26, 2017

Department of Homeland Security, Table 39. Aliens Removed or Returned: Fiscal Years 1892 to 2017

Phone and email interview, Randy Capps, director of research of U.S. Programs at the Migration Policy Institute, March 9-10, 2020

Phone interview, Bill O. Hing, a professor and director of the Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic at the University of San Francisco, March 9, 2020

Phone interview, Jeremy Slack, assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, March 10, 2020

Congressional Research Service, Alien Removals and Returns: OverviewandTrends, updated Feb. 3, 2015

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More by Miriam Valverde

The facts behind Joe Biden’s claim on deportations under Obama

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