This past weekend, CNN posted a report that the cost of deporting each person who is illegally the US was about $10,854 in fiscal 2016. (CNN April 13, 2017) The story highlights how misleading most news reporting is on immigration topics. While the underlying message is a good one — that it is very expensive to deport, the story understates the true costs.
First lets take the cost to the government. The story mistakenly assumes that the only costs for immigration removals (that is how the statute defines “deportations”) are from the ICE and CBP budgets. In fact a large number of these cases must be heard by an immigration judge in an immigration proceeding. At a minimum the government is represented by a lawyer and an immigration judge must preside over the proceeding. At the hearing there may be an interpreter, a court clerk additional court staff. If the non-citizen subject of the hearing decides to appeal the decision that case goes before another set of judges called the immigration appeals, in which case the lawyer for the government may have to write a brief and a panel of administrative appellate judges along with their staff review the record and decide the case after hearing from the applicant’s lawyer. While the government does not provide the applicant with a lawyer the government is certainly represented as each case is called at each stage in this process. In many cases the applicant may appeal the decision to a federal appellate court — there the case is heard by a panel of three judges and reviewed by the staff of the court to make sure that the law has been followed.
The CNN piece did not disclose the cost to the government in either being represented at the deportation hearing or the later administrative and court appeals. Nor did it discuss the costs to the federal judiciary for reviewing the cases. Indeed the immigration courts are overwhelmed and their dockets have skyrocketed such that new cases brought in today only move at a “fast” pace if the person has very little going for them — meaning no family ties in the U.S., no credible persecution claims or no possible immigration benefits that could be sought.
According to the Executive Office for Immigration Review there are 250 immigration judges in 58 immigration courts. Those judges received approximately 300,000 new cases and decided 273,000. What that number doesn’t tell you is how long and how much time it takes to decide each case for the immigration court backlog is said to exceed 500,000 cases. (If you are interested in immigration court’s caseload and report you can download it here.) Currently there are 16 administrative appeals judges on the Board of Immigration Appeals. None of these numbers include the support staff for each of these offices nor the private interpreters that have to be hired to enable the judges to take non-English testimony. The workload on these judges has an impact and in fiscal year 2014 approximately 5% of the Board’s 25,000 cases were remands from the federal courts, meaning that there were serious errors that required some type of additional attention by the Board of Immigration Appeals.