South Bay Detention Facility in Chula Vista. Sept. 29, 2016. Megan Wood, inewsource.

As the debate over illegal immigration rages on during the presidential campaign’s homestretch, federal data provide a glimpse into how the Obama administration’s policy shift on deportations has played out in San Diego County.

The number of immigrants detained — and subsequently deported — after being processed through San Diego County jails has dropped significantly over Obama’s two terms as president, according to statistics obtained by inewsource through the Freedom of Information Act.

News in Numbers

In fiscal year 2010, Immigration and Customs Enforcement placed immigration holds on nearly 2,300 inmates from local jails. It ended up deporting 1,770 local inmates that year.

Those numbers have since declined almost every year. In fiscal year 2015, the federal government detained 416 inmates in San Diego County and deported 208.

Declining deportations
Click the graphic to see the numbers on the inewsource website.

“The downturn … certainly reflects the effort to focus more of Homeland Security’s resources on the real bad guys, people who are security risks or violent felons or drug dealers and people smugglers who cross the border repeatedly,” said Wayne Cornelius, director emeritus of the Mexican Migration Field Research Program at the University of California San Diego. “Those are all supposed to be prime targets of this new approach to deporting undocumented immigrants.”

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Obama has deported over 2.5 million immigrants during his two terms in the White House — more than any previous president — earning him the nickname “Deporter in Chief.”

Cornelius said the president’s focus on deportations was a political strategy intended to show Congress that he was tough on immigration, in hopes that lawmakers would pass comprehensive immigration reform. But reform efforts failed.

In March 2011, an ICE memo signaled a policy shift. It stated that the agency “must prioritize the use of its enforcement personnel, detention space, and removal resources,” focusing its efforts on deporting violent criminals who “posed a danger to national security or a risk to public safety.”

ICE further clarified those enforcement priorities in a memo issued in November 2014, stating that the agency “must exercise prosecutorial discretion.”

Federal data show that deportations nationwide have been on the decline since fiscal year 2012.

Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for ICE, said in an email that she could not speak to the data analyzed by inewsource. But she noted that the agency is working “to ensure a common-sense approach that focuses immigration enforcement resources on convicted criminals and individuals who threaten public safety and national security, while also taking into account important community policing needs.”

Lilia Velasquez, a San Diego immigration attorney, said she’s witnessed the impact of the more targeted approach to deportations firsthand.

“Attorneys that specialize in removal defense don’t have a lot of work these days. And the reason is nobody gets detained anymore,” she said. “The removal practice in San Diego has really dropped substantially because of prosecutorial discretion.”