It’s a hot August afternoon and Maria sits in a car in a Kuna parking lot. The air is on a little but the engine’s not running so it doesn’t do much good. Despite the heat Maria wears a pink sweatshirt and a matching baseball cap. Maybe this heat doesn’t seem so bad to her because she just finished several hours working in a corn field.
“Today we were dis-tasseling the corn, taking all the tassels off,” she says. “They say it helps it grow faster.”
Her name is not really Maria, but it’s the one she asked us to use because she’s an undocumented immigrant. Maria, who’s in her 50s, says she’s been in the U.S. since she was three years old.
Immigration has come up a lot during this presidential election. Republican nominee Donald Trump promised at one point to deport most or all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
Last year, the U.S. deported about a quarter million people. We wanted to know how many of them were living in Idaho. It turns out that’s a difficult number to pin down.
Maria says she’s seen many friends deported. She’s also helped others avoid that fate. Maria is well-known in Idaho’s undocumented immigrant community and helps people find lawyers and get bail. She says when undocumented people get arrested, their families often call her.
“And it could be any time,” she says. “It could be early morning, late in the evening, calling me, they sound very desperate, crying, and children crying in the background.”
But Maria says she’s noticed something in just the last couple of years.
“Recently there hasn’t been a lot of people calling me for me to go help them,” she says. “It hasn’t been too long but I have noticed that that has been slowing down. And I was wondering why.”
First, she’s right. At least from the numbers we were able to get from the federal government, fewer people in Idaho seem to be getting deported.
There are a lot of factors that go into that, but a lot of the reason has to do with how the Department of Homeland Security has been prioritizing enforcement. The handful of agencies that deal with immigration enforcement are part of Homeland Security.
While deportations nationally went up for much of President Obama’s time in office, that was because of unprecedented emphasis on border patrol. While total deportations rose, deportations in states not on the Mexico border went down. Though that’s not necessarily true for every interior state.
In 2011 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said it would focus efforts on serious criminals. In 2014 it doubled down on that policy. People whose only crime is being in the country illegally can still be deported, but ICE says they’re a low priority.
“They’re not causing any problem, they have significant ties, they don’t have any criminal background,” explains Nicole Derden, who has been practicing immigration law in the Boise area for more than a decade. “These are people we don’t mind letting stay from a government point of view.”
A few years ago, Derden noticed something new. She started getting phone calls from the government’s immigration attorneys.
“And they’d say ‘Hey, this case you have on Jose, we want to go ahead and close it,’” Derden says. “And we’re like, ‘Wo! What’s going on here?’ We’re prepared for a battle. All of our cases are a battle. And they say, ‘You know what though, he doesn’t have any reason for us to keep him in according to the criminal priorities. So we’re going to just close his case.’”
Numbers from the federal immigration courts show changes in Idaho after ICE’s 2011 and 2014 policy announcements. Idaho doesn’t have an immigration court. Immigration judges from Portland visit Boise periodically to hear cases. Starting in 2012 there was a big increase in federal attorneys just shelving cases. In the chart above that's identified as administrative closure and combines two categories; prosecutorial discretion and other. Those cases can be reopened.
But even while that was happening, deportation or removal orders were still going up in Idaho. That is until 2014. They took an even bigger drop in 2015, when the court issued removal orders for just 33 people living in Idaho – half the number from the year before. There were also far fewer people voluntarily leaving the country to avoid being deported.
We also see an increase in relief. That's when the case ends with an undocumented immigrant getting legal status. Terminations, when a case is closed permanently with no decision have also gone up.
But these court numbers only tell part of the story.
“The court data only covers a subset of individuals deported,” says Susan Long, a statistics professor at Syracuse University.
Long is co-director of a research program called TRAC that uses data to monitor federal agencies. Long says those court numbers don’t tell us anything about what ICE does.
Undocumented immigrants who go through the courts in Idaho are mostly not in custody. Many are living free and even working while their cases go through the system. That’s a process that can take anywhere from a few months to a few years. If ICE takes someone into custody in Idaho and decides to keep that person long term, the agency takes him or her out of state. And that creates a big gap in our knowledge. ICE does not release state-by-state data, only numbers for multi-state regions.
“We certainly know how many people are deported from the United States,” Long says. “But that doesn’t tell us where they were living or where they were picked up.”
Long is highly critical of ICE because it does not release a lot of data she thinks it should. TRAC has been suing the agency for years to try to get more information about its activities.
“They are arguing that they can’t tell the public what information they track,” Long says. “And obviously if they can continue to withhold information about what they track, they can continue to say whatever they want concerning what they have and don’t have.”
ICE operatives in Idaho would not agree to an interview but did answer some questions by e-mail. ICE says currently when it takes people out of Idaho, they go to a detention center in Tacoma, Washington and go through the court there. That court gets roughly 4,000 to 6,000 new cases a year. ICE doesn't say how many people it arrests or takes into custody in Idaho. Nor do we know how many it takes out of state, how many of those get deported or how many return to Idaho.
TRAC does have state numbers on an ICE practice called detainers or holds. When an undocumented immigrant is arrested, ICE can tell jail officials to turn the person over. The Idaho numbers show a big decline in detainers over several years. TRAC says in 2015 ICE put holds on nearly 600 people in Idaho. According to TRAC’s numbers fewer than 100 of them fit ICE’s top priority category of criminals and nearly half of them had not been convicted of any crime.
ICE says its Idaho agents are following the 2014 criminal priority guidelines. But that doesn’t make undocumented immigrant Maria feel any safer.
“I’ve had people think that they’re safe and all of a sudden they’re gone,” she says. “You can never allow yourself to feel safe until you have the proper documents.”
Maria says even knowing that fewer people in Idaho are being deported recently, she can’t let her guard down. She says to be undocumented is to live in fear.
And ICE says following years of declining deportations in its four-state region that includes Idaho, in the fiscal year that ends this week, deportations will be up.
Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam
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