(The Economist Jan 2024) America’s border crisis in ten charts

I found this below to be a striking graphic, but I don't really remember any high level policy proposals stating that deportations of illegal immigrants was to be lowered that much.

I understand that there was a desire to reverse many of Trump's policies, but this is why this question is instead comparing it to Obama's policies. Obama was nicknamed the Deporter in Chief by some, but Obama's enduring popularity with Democrats also means that some levels of coercive enforcement are clearly acceptable to the public:

The enforcement priorities and policies, which evolved over the years, represented a significant departure from those of the Bush and Clinton administrations. As detailed below, the Obama-era policies represented the culmination of a gradual but consistent effort to narrow its enforcement focus to two key groups: The deportation of criminals and recent unauthorized border crossers.

In an election year, it seems clear that Biden's record on immigration and border control is eliciting concerns, even from Democrats

Moderate Democrats also support imposing greater penalties on businesses that hire without legal work authorization (68% vs. 40% liberals), increasing deportations (64% vs. 37%), and expanding the border wall and fence along the US-Mexico border (56% vs. 15%).

What drove this deportation policy change, compared to pre-Trump times?

enter image description here

FWIW Title 42 immigration restrictions - using a 1944 law allowing limits at border crossings for public health reasons - ran from March 2020 to May 2023

  • 4
    This is a question that VP Kamala Harris should be able to answer since she was appointed as the Border Czar by President Biden back in 2021 and has over the past few years been intensively studying the root causes of why people illegally cross our southern border.
    – user57467
    Commented May 28 at 14:30
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    What happened in 2020 that stopped everyone from traveling, illegally or not, I wonder... Funny how people have already forgotten all about it 4 years later.
    – Lundin
    Commented May 28 at 14:50
  • @Lundin I encourage you to write an answer on that basis then. Personally, I feel kinda sheepish but did not make the connection, mostly as I was quite surprised by the drop's magnitude. The top voted answer is good, but IMHO unnecessarily stresses other points than covid which kinda dilutes its clarity. Commented May 28 at 23:39

2 Answers 2


Part of the explanation may be that Democratic deportation policy may follow the actual degree of undocumented immigration to the USA, presumably with a bit of a lag for policy to catch up with border crossings. This would contrast with Republicans, who often have anti-immigration policies as a core part of their campaigns, particularly with Trump.

This would make particular sense in conjunction with the dramatic drop in immigration during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Consider the following graph from Pew: Graph of border crossings over time. They decrease, then increase.

Undocumented immigration was high during the Bush years, but steadily declining when Obama took office. And deportation during that term followed the same trend: it was high, yes, but can clearly be seen to be decreasing, leveling out around 2015 or 2016—just as immigration had leveled out a few years before.

During the Trump administration, given his aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric, we could expect yearly deportations to increase from the level that they had been at the end of Obama's term, regardless of trends in immigration, and that is what happened, according to the bar chart in the question. Though not as much as some might have predicted, perhaps suggesting more influence from lower-level employees, Trump's lack of interest in pairing rhetoric with action, or both.

The level of deportations started low during the first year of the Biden administration, probably because crossings had been low a few years previously, during all of Obama's term and most of Trump's. In particular, Trump had closed the borders during the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to an extremely low level of both legal and illegal immigration when Biden took office. But deportations have been increasing, as that bar chart clearly shows, presumably shadowing the increase in border crossings.

Another possible explanation is that Democrats simply have less of an appetite for deportations than they did a decade ago.

Data from Gallup polling suggests a potential 20 to 30 point rise in support for increased immigration in general among Democrats since the middle of the Obama presidency.

enter image description here

While immigration and undocumented immigration are not the same, it seems possible that sympathy toward undocumented immigrants and opposition to deportations has followed a similar trend.

As to why that might be, individuals within the Democratic Party have become more liberal and those within the Republican Party more conservative to a substantial degree. It's not simply a question of society as a whole adopting more progressive social views, either; the Republican Party has actually become more conservative in some respects. There has also been a degree of sorting, with individuals leaving one party and joining others that fit them better, something that is even reflected among politicians.

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    I'm pretty sure the support for immigration is for legal immigration, and not sympathy toward illegal immigration although the other points in this answer are correct.
    – whoisit
    Commented May 28 at 10:46
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    @whoisit: I don’t think many Americans support illegal immigration, but I do think people who are more positive about legal immigration are typically less strongly against illegal migration, more sympathetic to the situation of illegal migrants, and less likely to support harsh crackdowns. Commented May 28 at 14:02
  • You're right, covid probably explains a good deal of it (and maybe the answer should put more focus on that if you feel it warranted). Title 42 - "stay out, health emergency!" ran from March 2020 to May 2023. You can see the numbers' trend from Trump 2019, Trump 2020 to Biden 2021. And then it rises back up @ Biden 2023. Commented May 28 at 15:30
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    @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine: legal immigrants are generally all in on legal Immigration, but but totally against illegal immigration…
    – jmoreno
    Commented May 29 at 0:39
  • Given the devastation, corruption and oppression in most of Central and South America, it is quite reasonable to argue that most irregular crossings into the USA from its land border with Mexico are refugees, which the USA is required under its freely entered international treaty obligations to shelter. Hence "undocumented immigrant". The use of "illegal" for undocumented immigrants is both intentionally dehumanizing and violates the principle of innocent until proven guilty. In fact, it is quite likely the USA is illegally deporting millions of legitimate refugees.
    – Yakk
    Commented May 29 at 14:32

President Biden has requested that Congress give him $13.6 billion to increase deportations of people crossing the border illegally, but congressional Republicans are reluctant to comply because they believe Biden has intentionally opened the borders and can’t be trusted. However, data from the Trump era clearly show that, if he were in office, Trump would not be deporting any more border crossers than Biden has.

As I previously demonstrated, President Biden removed a higher percentage of border crossers in his first two years than Trump did during his last two years (51 percent versus 47 percent), despite Trump having to deal with many fewer total crossings (Table 1). Congress right now is in a bipartisan state of denial about these three central facts:

The reason people are being released is because of operational capacity to detain and deport them, not policy.

Biden has deported vastly greater numbers and a higher share of crossers, but it has not deterred people from crossing.

The logistics are such that once arrivals exceed the deportation machine’s capacity, people will find out and even more will come.

The reason is because people are being released because of operational capacity to detain and deport them. It doesn't have anything to do with the intention of not deporting them, but the fact that the U.S. cannot process and handle so many people.


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    I think this answer is good, but I struggle to see how it can be consistent with the data in mine and in the question. The assertion is that Biden deported a higher percentage of border crossers in his first two years than Trump in his. However, the number of deportations by Biden in 2021 and 2022 in the question are far lower than during 2017 and 2018, while the number of encounters (attempted crossings?) in my answer are higher during that period than the equivalent Trump period. Higher crossings and lower deportations would seem to mean a lower deportation rate overall.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented May 27 at 22:09
  • Did Trump's administration perhaps make up for that by deporting large numbers of people after they had already crossed? Are most of the encounters in my answer events that did not lead to deportations because the immigrants did not actually cross the border? I don't know, but on the face of it, there is an inconsistency.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented May 27 at 22:12
  • Well, I am not sure, but it's from the Cato institute, so I doubt they're trying to be disingenuous.
    – Sayaman
    Commented May 27 at 22:36
  • Well, Cato is libertarian and generally favors fewer immigration restrictions, so they do have their perspective, but I doubt the data is made up, either. But there is clearly some inconsistency in the definitions that are being used in the question, your answer, and mine.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented May 27 at 22:43
  • @Obie2.0 Some reasons for inconsistencies: first chart shows "fiscal year" (Sep-Sep) where the second uses calendar years. An immigrant with a denied asylum claim can have years between the initial "encounter" and the corresponding deportation (lengthy waitlist for asylum hearings). Your chart doesn't include "gotaways", whose numbers can be quite significant and which can result in deportations that have no corresponding "encounter". Your chart excludes immediate expulsions at the border before 2020 which may be included in the other chart.
    – bta
    Commented May 28 at 20:06

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