Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and President Barack Obama. Photo credit: Fang Zhe

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson after being tapped by President  Obama. Photo: Fang Zhe

Jeh Johnson, President Obama’s new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, this week admitted that “a very large fraction” of deportations aren’t really that but instead “turn-backs” at the border. 

During questioning on Capitol Hill, Johnson confirmed that his agency’s use of border security metrics inflate the reported number of deportations of illegal immigrants – statistics for which Obama takes heat from the left  even though true deportations actually are down sharply.

“We managed to remove 368,000 people last year and my understanding is that 98 percent of those fit within our removal priorities,” Johnson noted Tuesday at a DHS budget hearing before the House Appropriations Committee (beginning at 1:50 in this video).

Seconds earlier, however, Johnson had conceded that “a very large fraction of that 368,000, and I don’t know the number offhand … are basically border removals, where they’re apprehended in or around the border” and are “in the country for a very short period of time.”

This prompted Rep John Culberson (R–Texas) to say that fraction tops 50 percent as he questioned DHS’s methods of calculating removals.

“Under the Obama administration, more than half of those removals that were attributed to ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] were actually the result of Border Patrol arrests,” Culberson said. “They wouldn’t have been counted in prior administrations.”

“Right,” Johnson conceded, later also noting that “apprehension levels at the border have been going down recently.”

“So you really can’t actually use that number,” Culberson challenged, calling attention to Obama’s statement in 2011 that the deportation statistics are “deceptive” because “apprehending folks at the border and just sending them back” is “counted as a deportation.” He added:

“That’s never been done before in previous administrations. I know that the Bush administration never counted folks that were removed by the Border Patrol as being deported by ICE.”

Johnson’s remarks came on the heels of his appearance at another House hearing earlier this month during which Rep. Lamar Smith (R–Texas) blasted the Obama administration’s claims of record-breaking deportation numbers even though “turn-backs” at the border are included in the figure.

The Foundry reported on that hearing, in which Smith’s questioning revealed that interior deportations—the measure used in previous administrations—actually have dropped by 40 percent since 2009.

Despite Johnson’s clarification and concession Tuesday, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D–Calif.) continued to cite the “record number of deportations” as an indication of “the president’s commitment to obey our laws.”

In a related move yesterday apparently aimed at critics on the left over what they call high deportation numbers, Obama called for Johnson “to do an inventory of the [DHS’s] current practices to see how it can conduct enforcement more humanely within the confines of the law.”

The president’s instruction came during a meeting with representatives from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the House Democratic Caucus.

Obama also “expressed his strong desire to work together to put pressure on congressional Republicans to pass bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform as soon as possible,” according to the official summary of the meeting.

This story was produced by The Foundry’s news team. Nothing here should be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of The Heritage Foundation.