WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration set a new record for deportations, removing nearly 400,000 undocumented immigrants in the last fiscal year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced on Tuesday.
The agency removed 396,906 undocumented immigrants from the United States in the 2011 fiscal year, a slight increase from the previous year's 392,862 removals. Administration officials said the increase is the result of a continued focus on policing undocumented immigration, a rebuttal to claims by GOP presidential candidates and others who say the president has been too soft on unauthorized immigration.
"Smart and effective immigration enforcement relies on setting priorities for removal and executing on those priorities," ICE Director John Morton said in a statement. "These year-end totals indicate that we are making progress, with more convicted criminals, recent border crossers, egregious immigration law violators and immigration fugitives being removed from the country than ever before."
President Barack Obama faces a difficult balance on immigration as the 2012 presidential campaign heats up. Most Republicans criticize him for doing too little to eliminate unauthorized immigration, and have taken action to block the Obama administration from using prosecutorial discretion to focus on some undocumented immigrants rather than others.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House committee overseeing immigration, announced a bill in June that would block the president from using his executive powers to halt any deportations -- even though Obama has said repeatedly he would not do so.
At the same time, prominent immigration advocates argue Obama's deportation policies could drive away Latino voters, who largely support paths to citizenship for the some 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants who are already in the country.
In August, senior administration officials tried to appease critics on the left by announcing a new deportation policy that would take family and community ties of undocumented immigrants into account when determining whether they should be removed from the United States.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said after the announcement that the agency would continue to deport a consistent number of unauthorized immigrants, but the deportation figures would include a larger number of immigrants who have committed serious crimes.
"The numbers are going to be very robust in terms of numbers of removal -- we don't fool around about this," Napolitano said on Aug. 30 at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast. "Our border enforcement is second to none."
The 2011 figures show slightly more undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes were deported last year than in the prior year. ICE reported that 216,698 of the unauthorized immigrants removed in the 2011 fiscal year were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors, making up about 55 percent of the total removals. In the 2010 fiscal year, the 195,772 undocumented immigrants who had been charged with crimes -- almost 50 percent of the total removal figure -- were deported.
Former President George W. Bush deported about 30,000 fewer undocumented immigrants -- 369,221 -- in his final year in office.
The percentage of immigrants removed who were convicted of crimes has been rising since 2007, according to figures from ICE. In 2007, about 35 percent of those deported were convicted of crimes.
"What you're seeing each year is a bettering of what they're targeting and their own prioritization, in terms of their removals," said Michelle Mittelstadt of Migration Policy Institute, a think tank that tracks immigration. "Increasingly a larger share of overall removals are people who have felony or misdemeanor records. You've seen a steady uptick since 2007."
Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of pro-immigration reform organization America's Voice, said the Obama administration moved in the right direction by announcing a new deportation policy in August. But he said touting increased deportation numbers could conflict with the Obama administration's messaging on its new deportation policy.
"They are dithering on implementing the new policy, bragging about how many people they are deporting and spinning that they are focusing on the worst of the worst," he said. "If they do the same thing next year and make a similar announcement just weeks before the election they will end up suppressing the Latino vote and threatening the President's reelection. "
So far, the administration seems likely to continue to push for nearly 400,000 deportations per year, which enforcement officials say is the most they can remove under current funding levels. If Congress wants to see more deportations, Morton and Napolitano have said it should increase funding to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Napolitano said in August, "Congress should look at numbers if they want more deportations."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Frank Sharry was referencing an increase in deportations of undocumented immigrants with criminal records as a step in the right direction, when in fact he was referring to a new deportation policy announced by the Obama administration in August. The initial version also incorrectly stated due to an editing error that there are some 11.2 undocumented immigrants in the U.S., now corrected to some 11.2 million.