Daniel Gonzalez on 12/27/2013
PHOENIX — The federal government deported 368,644 people last fiscal year, a 10% decrease from the previous year and the first time deportations dropped since President Obama took office in 2008.
The latest number includes 34,868 people deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement's operations in Arizona, a nearly 12% drop from the year before.
The decrease comes as Obama has been under growing pressure from immigration advocates and some members of Congress to ease up on record deportations.
At the same time, the president has been trying to avoid appearing lax on enforcement in order to persuade Congress to pass changes that include a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants in the country illegally.
Immigrant advocates say, however, that the decrease isn't enough and vow to continue fighting deportations, while enforcement proponents say Obama's administration should be deporting more people, not fewer.
One of the reasons Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported fewer people in 2013 is that the agency is focusing more attention on catching and removing serious criminals, whose cases take more time, ICE officials said.
An increase in the percentage of Central Americans being apprehended at the border after crossing illegally also has reduced overall deportation numbers because they take more time to deport than Mexicans, ICE officials said.
But ICE officials emphasized that 98% of the 368,644 people deported last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, fit into the agency's priorities of removing criminals, recent border crossers and repeat immigration violators.
"These results clearly demonstrate that ICE is enforcing our nation's laws in a smart and effective way," acting ICE Director John Sandweg said in a recent conference call with reporters.
For the first time, ICE released a statistical breakdown, showing that ICE deported 133,551 people who had been apprehended from the interior of the country. Of those, Sandweg said, 82% had been previously convicted of a criminal offense.
The remaining 235,093 people deported last year were apprehended while attempting to enter the country illegally. Overall, nearly 60% of all the people deported by ICE last year were convicted of a criminal offense, he said.
"We will continue our efforts to focus on the removal of criminals and recent border crossers, promoting public safety, border security and the integrity of the immigration system,' Sandweg said.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank that favors less immigration and more enforcement, challenged Sandweg's claim that deportations are down because it takes longer to deport criminals.
She said the main reason deportations decreased last year is because, under the Obama administration, ICE has chosen to deport fewer overall people.
"Criminals don't necessarily take longer," Vaughan said. "In many cases, they are quicker" because they are already detained, so they don't have to be tracked down.
What's more, immigrants convicted of crimes are generally less likely to contest their deportation, because they do not usually qualify for legal status, she said.
She noted that ICE has instituted policies in recent years that direct agents not to go after undocumented immigrants with children and other ties to the U.S.
The Obama administration also has put in place policies that allow undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, known as "dreamers," to apply for protection from deportation, further reducing the number of people who can be deported.
"They have, by policy, exempted so many cases from their priority hierarchy that they are just looking the other way at the majority of the illegal aliens that their agents are encountering," Vaughan said.
Deportations have represented a political tightrope for Obama, who has made passing immigration reform a top domestic priority. But to do it needs the support of Republicans, many of whom remain unconvinced the president is committed to immigration enforcement despite record levels of deportations, which climbed to 409,849 in fiscal 2012 up from 369,221 in 2008.
Earlier this month, at least 28 Democratic House members, including U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, signed a letter asking Obama to stop deporting people who might qualify for legal status and citizenship should an immigration-reform bill pass.
A bipartisan bill that included a 13-year pathway to citizenship passed the Democratic-controlled Senate in June, but it remains stalled in the Republican-controlled House.
In recent months, immigrant- advocacy groups also have blocked detention buses and staged sit-ins at immigration-enforcement facilities in more than a dozen cities, including Phoenix and Tucson.
The protests are part of a national "Not One More Deportation" campaign to pressure Obama to halt deportations until Congress passes immigration reforms that provide a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
A survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center released this month indicated that 55% of Hispanics and 49% of Asian-Americans believe being able to live and work in the U.S. without the threat of deportation is more important than a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Despite the decrease in deportations, the latest numbers "are still astronomical," said B. Loewe, a spokesman for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, one of the groups organizing the protests.
Loewe said the decrease shows that Obama's administration has the power to stop deporting people but has instead chosen to deport record numbers of people in hopes of gaining support for immigration reform.
"The theory is that deportation was a down payment for immigration reform to bolster his enforcement credentials, but that policy has absolutely failed," Loewe said.
Meanwhile, Loewe said, families continue to be separated.
Loewe said his group plans to continue staging protests in the coming year to pressure Obama to ease up on deportations.
"A 10% drop in already record-number deportations is little salve for the deep wound that his deportation policy has already caused," Loewe said.
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