WASHINGTON -- The number of immigrants deported from the country decreased this year for the first time since President Obama came into office, according to figures released Thursday.
The decline came largely because of changes in administration policy over the last two years, particularly the move to give higher priority to deporting immigrants with criminal records, said immigration officials. Finding and removing criminals in the country without visas takes longer than deportations in non-criminal cases, they noted.
About 369,000 immigrants were deported in the 12-month period ending Sept. 30. That was about a 10% decline from the previous year, when immigration agents sent 409,847 people out of the country.
John Sandweg, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a statement the totals “make clear that we are enforcing our nation’s laws in a smart and effective way, meeting our enforcement priorities by focusing on convicted criminals.” Sandweg also said that more than 60% of those deported had recently crossed the border into the U.S. without a visa.
The number of deportations under Obama has become a highly contentious part of the national debate over immigration. In its five years so far, the Obama administration has removed nearly 2 million immigrants, the highest number of deportations under any sitting president.
Immigrant advocates have been holding sit-ins and demonstrations at immigration offices across the country over the last three months to pressure the Obama administration to stop deportations that split apart families.
Marshall Fitz, an immigration expert at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, said the decline this year is “encouraging.” But the decrease, he said, is “not huge” and “there is still much more work to be done” to focus deportations on people who pose a threat to public safety.
By contrast, conservative critics, who favor an increase in deportations, said the new numbers provide evidence of lax law enforcement.
“The Obama administration just isn’t serious about enforcing our immigration laws,” Kris Kobach, a lawyer who has filed several lawsuits against the Obama administration’s immigration policy, said in a telephone interview. “They seem to be looking for more and more categories for people not to deport,” said Kobach, who was elected the secretary of state of Kansas in 2010.
Alonzo Pena, who was the No. 2 official at Immigration and Customs Enforcement from 2008 to 2010, said that ICE decided at the beginning of the Obama administration to focus on arresting people who have criminal records and pose a danger to the community. At the same time, immigration officials decided to ramp up deporting people who were apprehended at or near the border and other recent arrivals.
“There are emotional factors when you remove someone that has children in schools and bought homes and are part of the community -- those removals are more difficult,” Pena said in a telephone interview. “If they just got here, it is easier to remove them right then and there,” he said.
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