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  • Juan M. Pedroza

Deportation Discretion

My article -- Deportation Discretion: Tiered Influence, Minority Threat, and “Secure Communities” Deportations -- has just been published by the Policy Studies Journal


​Update: article featured in the following news stories


Here are the main takeaway points I want to highlight:

Deportation outcomes are uneven across the country : Under the once-defunct but revived Secure Communities immigration enforcement program, certain county jails routinely turn noncitizens over to immigration authorities -- while others do so more sparingly. Local and federal bureaucrats make such decisions regularly, and they have the discretion to facilitate or dampen restrictive outcomes.

The most punitive discretion outcomes are not random : Law enforcement in counties where Hispanic concentrations are below 20% tend to use discretion to facilitate deportations more than the national average. Similar results are found in counties where Hispanics are above 40% of the population.

Variation in discretion outcomes comports with one of two competing theoretical accounts : There is much evidence, as I cite in my article, that welcoming policies are usually enacted where minorities are large enough to possess clout. But that's not what I found in this case. Instead, political science research -- which I call the 'tiered influence' account -- correctly predicts that the least restrictive outcomes are reported in counties where Hispanics are neither too few nor too formidable (20-40%).

How much difference can local demographics make?

Keep in mind that immigration authorities deported a fraction of those identified by the Secure Communities program. A 2014 Migration Policy Institute report places the figure around 15 percent (page 5), and I find Secure Communities deported 18 percent of noncitizens located in county jails following an arrest for lower-level offenses.

The graphic below displays what we might expect in counties with different local demographic profiles. Based on my analyses, counties with very low Hispanic concentrations typically deported 20% of noncitizens in local custody, after accounting for a range of relevant factors in the literature on enforcement: 1 in 5 noncitizens deported.

Counties with a high concentration -- say 25% -- were more protective (from the point of view of noncitizens) than locations with smaller Hispanic concentrations: 1 in 6 noncitizens deported.

And counties where Hispanics are 35% were more protective: 1 in 7 noncitizens deported.

Administrative action is potentially very consequential for immigration policy: Although most current research on state and local contexts of reception focus on laws and ordinances debated and/or passed in public fashion, behind-the-scenes and day-to-day actions undertaken by bureaucrats also matter for understanding what a 'welcoming' or 'hostile' context means for immigrants. In this case, the data required for studying administrative action came from the online FOIA library, but those resources (as of today) are no longer available. But, of course, keeping track of the consequence of administrative action is no less relevant today than it was under the Obama Administration. If you want to see which places have taken concrete steps to promote discretion, see the national map of enforcement policies maintained by the Immigration Legal Resource Center. With the exception of the most longstanding 'sanctuary cities' dating back to the 1980s, the vast majority of these policies were implemented since the summer of 2013 -- after my study period.

Correlation is not causation: I include a caution in my article that the results I observe are based on a cross-section of outcomes across the country. Long-term data on deportation discretion would have been ideal but is not available. Although I cannot be sure why counties with 20-40% Hispanic populations report the least punitive outcomes, here are some ideas based partly on my paper and related work:

  • First, let's start with my paper. The association between % Hispanic and deportation decisions also holds when I measure the concentration of Hispanic adults, workers, and U.S. citizens. But not when I predict deportation discretion as a function of the concentration of Hispanic youth or Hispanic noncitizens. What's more, this doesn't seem to be related to either (a) non-Hispanic, black shares or (b) foreign-born shares. So if the tiered influence account is the correct one, then discretion could appear most protective because of the clout certain segments of the Hispanic population -- and not the concentration of immigrants in general. Of course, such an influence seems to dim where Hispanics approach or exceed the majority.

  • Other research I cite suggests that places with small or recent concentrations of Hispanics have yet to develop local, community-based organizations that typically facilitate pressure on elected officials, such as sheriffs that run county jails.

  • Related research on sanctuary cities and the dispersal of immigrants also focus on two contrasting kinds of places: (1) large urban enclaves in welcoming states and (2) small and segregated cities and towns in new destination states. The latter (2) typically have Hispanic concentrations below 20% and the former (1) often report the least punitive deportation outcomes.

  • But why do counties where Hispanics are 40% or more also report punitive outcomes? Prior research has documented this phenomenon. Put simply: people in places with a large Hispanic presence do not necessarily mobilize protect the interests of the most vulnerable segments of the Hispanic population. Noncitizens under arrest may not be seen as a priority for advocacy in these places -- as is sometimes the case in southwestern states with large noncitizen concentrations. It is possible that support for the plight of noncitizen arrestees may actually splinter where a formidable Hispanic presence includes both (a) Hispanics who strongly favor promoting the interests of noncitizens and (b) Hispanics who have possibly competing priorities.

My paper is part of a special issue in the Policy Studies Journal on "Immigration Policy Measurement" examining evidence of racial threat in immigration policymaking.


"Deportation Discretion" permanent link:

Policy Studies Journal

ABSTRACT: As deportations from the United States rose to unprecedented levels, a nationwide immigration enforcement program Secure Communities helped identify deportable noncitizens under arrest in county jails. Examining county‐level variation in deportation activity between 2008 and 2013, this paper contributes to immigration policy research by examining how county officials in some locations facilitated exceptionally restrictive deportation outcomes while others exercised the discretion to turn noncitizens over for deportation sparingly. Consistent with a hypothesized “tiered influence” relationship, but contrary to a “racial threat” hypothesis, Hispanic concentration predicts the highest levels of exercised discretion where Hispanic concentration is neither too small nor too large. Noncitizens under arrest seem to have benefited from above‐average Hispanic concentrations, except in counties where Hispanics exceed about 40 percent of the population.

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