WASHINGTON -- The number of immigrants deported from the country decreased this year for the first time since President Barack Obama entered office, reflecting new policies intended to focus enforcement on immigrants with criminal backgrounds.
Both sides in the debate over immigration policy seized on the annual figures released Thursday by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Advocates for immigrants, who have repeatedly criticized the administration for high numbers of deportations under Obama's tenure, said the 369,000 immigrants deported in the 12 months ending Sept. 30 were still too many. Conservative groups denounced the decline as a sign of lax law enforcement.
In its five years so far, the Obama administration has removed nearly 2 million immigrants, the highest number of deportations under any president.
The roughly 10 percent decline from last year's record-high 409,849 deportations involved several changes in administration policy over the last two years. The change with the biggest effect, officials said, was the move to give higher priority to deporting immigrants with criminal records and multiple immigration violations. Finding and removing criminals in the country without visas takes longer than deportations in noncriminal cases, officials noted.
The totals "make clear that we are enforcing our nation's laws in a smart and effective way and meeting our enforcement priorities by focusing on convicted criminals," said John Sandweg, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
A recent increase in the number of immigrants caught entering the U.S. illegally from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala has also slowed the removals, because returning a deportee to Central America takes longer than sending a person back to Mexico, which remains the source of the largest share of deportees, Sandweg said.
As congressional action on immigration legislation has stalled over the past several months, immigrant advocates have been holding sit-ins and demonstrations at immigration offices across the country to pressure the Obama administration to stop deportations that split up families.