ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. There is new fuel in the debate over what or who is to blame for an influx of illegal immigrant children crossing the southern border. Numbers released by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency show that in the past five years, deportations of immigrants under 18 have dropped by a significant number, far fewer children are being sent home. And these numbers challenge a narrative the Obama administration has maintained. It says that it's tried to discourage kids from attempting to enter the country illegally by making clear that they will be deported. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson repeated that message yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")
JEH JOHNSON: We keep reminding parents of the dangers of sending your children unaccompanied on this journey, this long, 1,000 mile journey. And that there are no free passes once you get here.
SIEGEL: Brian Bennett is the Los Angeles Times reporter who got those numbers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or I.C.E., using a Freedom of Information Act request, and he joins us now. Welcome.
BRIAN BENNETT: Happy to be with you on the program.
SIEGEL: First of all, talk us through the numbers.
BENNETT: So I got a massive amount of information from I.C.E. about the deportations of people over the last 10 years, and we looked at the age of those people over time. And we found that the people under 18 who were being removed peaks at around 2008 at about 8,000 people. And starts to decline until last year when about 1,600 people were deported who were under 18.
SIEGEL: Why? Why the drop?
BENNETT: So there are a few reasons for the drop. One is that a law was passed in 2008 that made it very difficult to deport children who came to the country on their own who were from Central America. What the law changed was that children from Central America, instead of being turned around and put back over the border in Mexico or even being put onto a flight back to Central America, first had to appear before an immigration judge. And the immigration courts are backlogged and it takes several years for those cases to be heard.
SIEGEL: We should say the law in question was passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by a Republican President, George W. Bush.
BENNETT: That's right. It was is a pretty sweeping law that tried to put in a lot of different changes to help children who were being trafficked, who were forced into sex slavery, for example. And one of the small changes in the law had this large and unexpected effect.
SIEGEL: Well, how do these numbers play into the whole phenomenon we're witnessing this year of increased border crossings by unaccompanied minors and the debate over what's causing it?
BENNETT: So the Obama administration wants to send this message to parents in Central America not to send their kids over. And they're saying that if your children do come to the country, that they're going to be deported. Well, it's true that children from Central America, when they arrive here, are placed into deportation proceedings but when you look at the actual statistics it takes several years for those proceedings to play out. During which time, social services places children with relatives or with foster parents and effectively they're allowed to stay here for a few years.
SIEGEL: So if those kids look at what we do, not what we say, the logical thing would be to say, well, you can get four or five years in the U.S. this way.
BENNETT: You can imagine over the last few years how word has gotten back that that could embolden other families to send their children.
SIEGEL: Do the data you've seen actually prove what's causing the influx of child immigrants?
BENNETT: I say they give a very good indication. I think there are a few limitations to the data. The data just shows the age of people when they were deported. It doesn't show if they came to the country unaccompanied. It doesn't show if people after they turned 18 were later then were deported. To some of the people could've been apprehended as children and then aged out of the under 18 category and then later been deported. But that also speaks to the fact that it does take a few years for people to go through these removal proceedings.
SIEGEL: Just to put these numbers in context, the number of minors being deported has been going down since 2008, on the other hand it's widely reported that the Obama administration, broadly has been deporting more people. So adults - those numbers are up for the same period?
BENNETT: So during that same time that the number of minors being deported has gone down, the total number of people being deported has stayed steady or increased slightly at about 400,000 per year. So you have the Obama administration being criticized for record levels of deportations and at the same time, they're deporting each year fewer and fewer minors.
SIEGEL: Brian Bennett writes about immigration for the Los Angeles Times. Mr. Bennett, thank you.
BENNETT: Happy to be on the show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.