The Obama administration deported a record number of illegal immigrants for the third straight year, according to figures released Tuesday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Despite facing criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, officials promised to continue the White House policy of prioritizing for removal those illegal immigrants with criminal convictions.
Of the 396,906 deportations from October 2010 through September of this year, more than half were illegal immigrants with felony or misdemeanor convictions, a percentage that has increased steadily since the end of the George W. Bush administration.
The annual total was about 4,000 more deportations than the record set in the previous year.
Officials often have credited the increase to programs such as Secure Communities, which checks the immigration status of individuals fingerprinted at state and local jails and, if need be, notifies immigration authorities. Secure Communities has been deployed in 1,600 law enforcement jurisdictions across the country, and immigration officials plan to have the program deployed nationwide by 2013.
The steady increase in enforcement efforts comes at a time when the rate of immigrants coming into the U.S. illegally has decreased, in part due to the sluggish U.S. economy.
The Obama administration decided in September to extend the deployment of 1,200 National Guard troops on the U.S.-Mexico border through the end of the year, at a cost of about $10 million a month.
Activists pushing for immigration reform have criticized President Obama’s approach as too heavy-handed, while Republicans have clamored for even more deportations.
The record number of deportations under the Obama administration has left a "wake of devastation in Latino communities across the nation," Joanne Lin, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. "These record-breaking deportation numbers come at a time when illegal immigration rates have plummeted, the undocumented population has decreased substantially and violent crime rates are at their lowest levels in 40 years. Our country can no longer afford to pay for uncontrolled, unwarranted DHS spending, at the cost to U.S. taxpayers."
Some House Republicans have criticized Obama for issuing guidelines that encourage immigration officials to defer the deportations of individuals who are pursuing an education or have strong family ties in the U.S., among other factors. They say the guidelines amount to selectively enforcing the law.
The White House has maintained that Obama favors both a secure border and reforms to offer a path to legal residence for those illegal immigrants who are living in the U.S. but otherwise observing its laws.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano addressed the criticism of the administration during a speech at American University earlier this month.
"Our policies have been simultaneously described as engaging in a mean-spirited effort to blindly deport record numbers of illegal immigrants from the country and alternatively as comprehensive amnesty that ignores our responsibility to enforce the immigration laws; two opposites can't simultaneously be true," she said.
In fiscal year 2011, the Obama administration removed 1,119 immigrants convicted of homicide, 5,848 immigrants convicted of sexual offenses, 44,653 immigrants convicted of drug related crimes and 33,927 immigrants convicted of driving under the influence, according to ICE statistics.
"You can count on seeing more of the same next year," ICE Commissioner John Morton told reporters Tuesday.