- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 6, 2010

President Obama’s new immigration enforcement strategy led to a record number of criminal aliens being deported last year, but removals of other illegal immigrants fell to the lowest rate since 2007, before the Bush administration began a crackdown.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 392,862 aliens in fiscal year 2010, slightly less than a 1 percent increase over 2009 but short of the agency’s goal to remove 400,000 this year.

Still, the administration said its new focus on immigrants with criminal records is paying off, with about half of those deported in 2010 being convicted criminals. In 2009, when 389,834 immigrants were deported, only about one-third of them had criminal records.

“This administration takes very, very seriously the responsibility to secure the borders and enforce immigration laws,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in announcing the numbers Wednesday. The fiscal year ended Sept. 30.

The numbers come in the middle of a heated national debate on immigration. Republicans and Democrats alike have called on the administration to pursue more vigorous enforcement, both on the border and in the interior, but Ms. Napolitano said federal officials have to use their limited resources to try to take the biggest public safety threats off the streets, which means focusing on aliens with serious criminal records.

She and Mr. Obama have tried to cut a middle ground between those who favor a crackdown and the immigrant rights groups who want to see fewer deportations.

But by following that new course, ICE has fallen down on other basic enforcement, said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

He said administrative arrests of illegal immigrant workers are down 77 percent under Mr. Obama, criminal arrests are down 60 percent and convictions are down 68 percent.

“Worksite enforcement has been all but forgotten by the Obama administration,” the Texas Republican said. “Millions of Americans are struggling to find work, while an estimated 7 million illegal immigrants are working in the U.S. Worksite enforcement could help make those much-needed jobs available for U.S. citizen and legal immigrant workers.”

Meanwhile, immigrant rights groups said the government is still not doing enough to limit deportations.

“Trying hard is not good enough. While the numbers released today paint a picture of enforcement that is more targeted than in years past, serious questions and questionable programs remain,” said Brittney Nystrom, director of policy and legal affairs at the National Immigration Forum.

Chief among her concerns are the 287(g) program that allows local law enforcement agencies to assist in beginning the process of deporting illegal immigrants, and the Secure Communities program, that Homeland Security is planning to expand.

Under Secure Communities, ICE employees use fingerprints to try to identify criminal aliens before they are released from prison or jail, and to move quickly to deport the most serious cases. Ms. Napolitano said the program has been a success and will be used nationwide by 2013.

ICE said in addition to deportations, it also audited more than 2,200 companies and charged 180 owners, employers or managers for hiring illegal workers.

Mr. Obama, in a major immigration speech this summer, rejected immigrant-rights groups’ call to halt deportations, but also said there’s a limit to how much enforcement the government can pursue.

He has instead called for Congress to pass a broad bill that legalizes illegal immigrants, and Ms. Napolitano on Wednesday said that would take pressure off law enforcement, which is stretched to respond now.

Of the 392,862 aliens ICE removed in 2010, 195,772 had criminal records. Among those, more than 1,000 had been convicted of murder, and 6,000 had been convicted of sex offenses.

In 2009, ICE removed 389,834 aliens, of whom 136,343 had criminal records. In 2008, the numbers were 369,221 total removals, of which 114,415 had been convicted of crimes. And in 2007, 291,060 aliens were removed, and 102,024 of them had criminal records.

In the summer of 2007 the last major attempt at passing a broad immigration bill failed in the Senate, and several months later the Bush administration began a major enforcement crackdown, arguing that voters needed to be convinced the government was serious about security before they would accept action on legalizing illegal immigrants.

Three years later, Ms. Napolitano also said the border is safer, and said stats show the crime rate is actually falling along the border.

“Some of America’s safest cities are right along the southwest border,” said Ms. Napolitano, a former governor of Arizona.

She has come under fire from members of Congress who say recent policy memos suggest the department is slow-walking deportations of many illegal immigrants as agents focus on those with criminal records.

She has also called for an investigation into ICE’s detention policy this summer after police say an illegal immigrant with a history of drunken-driving offenses drove his car into a vehicle carrying three Catholic nuns in Prince William County, killing Sister Denise Mosier.

The man had been reported to immigration officials in 2008, but ICE had released him on his own recognizance while he awaited deportation proceedings.

After the incident, ICE announced it was changing its policy and would try to hold illegal immigrants charged with drunken driving.

Of the criminal aliens removed in 2010, ICE said 28,000 had drunken-driving convictions.

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