With more than 2.1 million deportations under his belt, President Barack Obama holds a reputation among frustrated immigration advocates as “deporter-in-chief.” The president vowed several years ago that his administration would get smarter on deportations, targeting mainly serious criminals who threaten their communities. But during his time in office, many deportees continue to be low-level offenders, or people who committed no crimes. Since 2008, deportations of people who committed immigration offenses have grown 31 percent per year, while the number deported for non-immigration crimes rose by only 7 percent annually.

This trend has persisted even though the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency has specified through a series of memos that “high priority” immigrants who threaten public safety or national security would take precedence. But the breadth of those enforcement priorities means that violent criminals, drug offenders, traffic violators and those with immigration infractions still get caught up in the same deportation net.  

Statistics from ICE from 2013 show that about 40 percent of interior removals – deportations from the interior of the U.S. rather than at the border – were of people who had committed low-level misdemeanors or had no criminal histories at all. A broader analysis by the New York Times earlier this year showed that only about 20 percent of total deportees under Obama’s watch were those who had committed serious or violent crimes. 

The president declared in 2012 that his administration had narrowed its priorities for deportations to target “folks who are criminals, gangbangers, people who are hurting the community.” No longer would the federal government go after longtime residents and people with families and strong community roots in the U.S., he said. Those remarks came after John Morton, then the director of ICE, outlined the department’s enforcement priorities and stipulated that ICE agents could use discretion to target those higher-priority immigrants for deportation.

Technically, the government has succeeded in adhering to those enforcement priorities, and in some ways, the deportation dragnet has narrowed during Obama’s tenure. Interior removals have more selectively targeted people with criminal histories, moving away from the days of workplace raids. Much of this has been done through the controversial Secure Communities program, which allows immigration authorities to check the status of people booked in local jails and target them for removal. ICE’s 2013 statistics report also boasts that 98 percent of all removals fell within the priorities listed in the Morton memo, which also include recent unauthorized entrants and those who "obstruct immigration controls."

Secure Communities has largely been blamed for extending the deportation net to low-level offenders. But some analysts also say this is in part due to how broad ICE’s enforcement priorities are. “Even before the memos came out, and under the Bush administration, most [deportees] fell within these categories,” said Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute and co-author of its report analyzing Obama’s deportation record.  

The “Priority 1” category of immigrants targeted for deportation, described by ICE as “aliens who pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety,” encompasses a substantial range of criminals, from those with two felonies or more down to those with two or fewer misdemeanors. That essentially means that an immigrant with a minor traffic infraction and another with murder or burglary on their record would fall into the same broad “Priority 1” category, even while being in separate subcategories. About a quarter of ICE’s 2013 removals were for people with two or fewer misdemeanors.  

While Obama is facing increasing pressure over using executive action on immigration reform – with backlash from immigration advocates who say he has stalled on his promises, and from Republicans who have challenged his authority to issue those orders – Rosenblum says narrowing down ICE’s enforcement priorities to more clearly target serious offenders could help stem the tide of deportations for low-priority immigrants.

“If [the categories] were to be more narrowly defined, that would result in more discretion being exercised in the kinds of cases the administration is likely looking at in terms of executive action,” he said. “It’s definitely a viable strategy for reducing deportations.”  

For his part, Obama has addressed the deportation issue, and ordered a review of deportation policies earlier this year. But in May, he ordered a delay in releasing the results of the review in hopes that Congress would move forward on immigration reform measures. Congress made it clear this summer that it would not budge on immigration this year, but since then the administration has not released any more details of the review.