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.
This week, the Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution calling on Obama to suspend deportations of all individuals who lack serious criminal histories, joining House Democrats who have asked the president to stop removals of any immigrants who would qualify for legalization under proposed immigration reform bills. A coalition of immigrant rights groups is pushing for the passage of similar resolutions in other major California cities.
The Senate passed an immigration bill in June that would create a 13-year pathway to citizenship for many of those in the country illegally as well as boost spending on border security by more than $30 billion. That legislation has stalled in the Republican-controlled House.
Republicans may take up a series of more narrowly framed immigration bills in the spring. The president has said he won't sign an immigration bill unless it includes a way for some of the 11 million people in the country without authorization or who overstayed their visas to eventually become U.S. citizens. The idea of a separate pathway to citizenship for people who entered the country illegally has become a sticking point for many House Republicans.
A Pew Research Center poll released Thursday showed that changing the law to end the threat of deportation remains the top priority for Latinos. By 55 percent to 35 percent, Latinos polled said being able to live and work in the U.S. legally was more important than a pathway to citizenship. Among Latino immigrants who came to the U.S. legally, just 44 percent have become citizens, according to the Pew study.
Over Obama's tenure, the administration has moved away from raids on workplaces and has used criminal databases to help identify and deport people with criminal convictions. Of the people deported in the 2013 fiscal year, 216,810 had been previously convicted of a crime or immigration violation. That was 59 percent of all those removed, up from 31 percent five years ago.
Immigration advocate Frank Sharry said that many people being deported were classified as criminals only because they had previously violated immigration laws and kept coming back into the country to be with their families.
"They should be deporting people who have been convicted of crimes and a more carefully defined set of bad actors," Sharry said. "They've expanded what it means to be a criminal in order to justify the deportations; it is insulting to the immigrant community."
Conservative critics, who favor more deportations, said the new numbers proved the administration was not committed to policing the border.
"The Obama administration just isn't serious about enforcing our immigration laws," said Kris Kobach, a lawyer and Kansas secretary of state who has filed lawsuits challenging the administration's immigration policy. "They seem to be looking for more and more categories of people not to deport."
Alonzo R. Pena, who was the No. 2 official at the immigration agency from 2008 to 2010, said ICE had decided at the beginning of the Obama administration to focus on arresting people who had criminal records and posed a danger to the community.
At the same time, immigration officials decided to increase deportations of newly arrived unauthorized immigrants. A decade ago, most of those recent border crossers would have been immediately returned without having the removal marked on their records. The number of people deported who were caught near the border has increased by 55 percent from five years ago. The increase corresponds with a surge in the number of Border Patrol agents.
"There are emotional factors when you remove someone who has children in schools and bought homes and are part of the community -- those removals are more difficult," Pena said.
Times staff writer Kate Linthicum in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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