The number of deportation cases filed by federal immigration officials dropped by nearly a third in the first three months of the fiscal year, according to a report by the Syracuse University Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
The drop recorded in the last three months of 2011 may reflect the Obama administration's plan to focus its deportation efforts by weighing a variety of discretionary factors, including whether the person is a veteran, came to the U.S. as a child or is a college student, according to the report. But experts said it's too soon to say if deportations overall will decline.
From October through December, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement initiated 39,331 deportation cases in immigration court, down from 58,639 the previous quarter, the report says. Filings are typically lower during the holiday months, but even adjusted for the seasonal drop-off the numbers are significantly lower, according to the authors.
Immigration officials said they have not had the opportunity to review the data to verify their accuracy but added that the numbers don't fully encompass the ways in which a person can be deported. The report, said ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen, is focused only on submissions for deportations made to immigration courts.
"It ignores the fact that ICE regularly removes individuals without going through formal [immigration court] proceedings utilizing voluntary, administrative, expedited and stipulated removals as well the reinstatement of old removal orders," she said.
From October through early February, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed 121,780 people from the country, according to the agency.
Immigration officials said a review of 300,000 deportation cases announced by the Obama administration in August is well underway and tens of thousands of cases have been reviewed.
Congress has provided enough funds for the ICE to deport about 400,000 people annually, and the administration has said it intends to focus those resources on cases deemed high-priority, including those involving national security, serious felons, individuals with lengthy criminal records, known gang members and others who pose a threat to public safety.
"We're being smart about how we enforce the law. We're doing it in a way that makes sense and in a way that uses tax dollars effectively," said ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez. "Law enforcement has to have set priorities because the American public doesn't want us to just arrest the first 400,000 people we can remove. Why arrest the first 400,000 people when you can arrest those who are threats to the community?"
The proportion of filings during the period that sought deportation on grounds of alleged criminal activity was 14%, down from nearly 16% in the first quarter of fiscal year 2011. Those numbers led the report's authors to say there is little evidence cases are being better targeted toward serious criminals. But agency officials strongly disputed that notion as based on incomplete data.
"As it has done in past reports, this report focuses only on the technical reasons why an individual is legally removable from the US and ignores the criminal history that triggered the decision to seek the person's removal," Christensen said.
The number of convicted criminals deported by the agency nearly doubled last year. So far, 52% of those removed this fiscal year are convicted criminals, Christensen said.
The report's analysis is based on case records obtained by the data research center under a Freedom of Information Act request made to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which administers the nation's immigration courts.
Some immigration attorneys said they have started to see a change in the types of cases the government pursues.
"It's too early for me to say it's a trend," said Carl Shusterman, a Los Angeles-based immigration attorney and former trial attorney for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "But it is something I didn't necessarily get in the past.
"Before, if you had these Dream Act students and we wanted to keep them in the U.S., I'd have to go to a congressman and beg for a private bill. Now I can just go to a deportation officer who has the case and say, 'You know this person falls within these prosecutorial discretion guidelines. You don't really want to deport them, do you?' And they'll agree with you. That is a sea change."