Top immigration officials said Monday that the U.S. rounded up about 2,000 people who had been convicted of crimes and are living in the country illegally, an announcement made in part to show that agents are still aggressive about enforcement at a time of declining deportations.
The arrests came in a five-day national dragnet last week called Operation Cross Check, one in a series of such operations that began in 2011.
"Public safety is directly and significantly improved by deporting those individuals involved in crime," said Sarah Saldaña, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "By focusing on those who pose the greatest risk to our communities, we are marshaling our limited resources in the most responsible manner."
Some of the 2,059 people had convictions for serious crimes, including manslaughter, robbery, rape and child pornography, they said. Most of those arrested were not convicted of violent crimes. Nearly all of the 912 people with misdemeanors were convicted of driving while under the influence. And 476 of the felons had been charged with an immigration violation, trying to enter the country illegally. None of the people were implicated in terrorism, the officials said.
The announcement comes as the Obama administration has faced harsh criticism by conservatives for pulling back on immigration enforcement. In the most recent fiscal year, the agency deported about 316,000 people, the smallest number since Obama took office. About two-thirds of those were turned back from the border, and about 102,000 were sent out in so-called "interior removals," mostly because of criminal records. That number was down 23% from 2013.
"The focus is on public safety and national security," and quality over quantity, said Alejandro Mayorkas, deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
The declining numbers have also become an issue in the ongoing court fight over Obama's plans to give temporary legal protection to millions of immigrants, mostly parents of U.S. citizens who've lived here since 2010, without significant crimes on their record.
A federal judge in Texas, ordering a freeze on the president's actions, said the "failure of the federal government to secure the borders" justified the states' suing to block the program.
At the same time, Obama has been slammed by immigrant rights advocates who believe deportations are still too high.
"They have always tried to find a way to thread the needle" between the two sides, said Chris Newman, legal director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a group that has fought federal enforcement programs.