The Obama administration has set records for deportations, but the types of immigrants it is kicking out of the country has changed dramatically over the past four years, according to numbers the Homeland Security Department has had to turn over as part of a pending court case.
Records show that the number of regular deportations from within the interior the rank-and-file illegal immigrants who are living and working in the shadows has plummeted by 25 percent. Instead, the department has surged deportations along the borders.
That change means that illegal immigrants who successfully navigate the border are in less danger of being deported, unless they commit serious crimes that bring them to the attention of the federal government.
"They're doing a different kind of enforcement that results in higher numbers, but there are definitely not more people being removed from the interior of the country," said Jessica M. Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, who testified about the data in court last week.
Homeland Security officials had to turn over the in-depth deportation numbers as part of the case, which involves a challenge from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and officers who say the Obama administration is preventing them from doing their jobs.
Under federal law, they say, they are required to arrest illegal immigrants they encounter, but they now fear being fired if they do so.
The change in deportations began four years ago but really stepped up in 2011, when the Obama administration issued guidance telling agents to stop deporting illegal immigrants unless they had major criminal records or had violated immigration laws repeatedly.
Critics said that means a de facto amnesty already is in place.
ICE referred questions about the deportation numbers to the Homeland Security Department, which oversees ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agency that handles the border.
A Homeland Security spokesman pointed to Secretary Janet A. Napolitano's testimony Thursday to Congress, where Rep. Lou Barletta, Pennsylvania Republican, asked about the deportation numbers. He said it appeared to show "the administration has cooked its removal statistics."
Ms. Napolitano countered that a deportation is a deportation no matter where the alien is apprehended.
"The way I do my math is look at removals from the country, and we have removed more people from the United States than any prior administration," she said, suggesting that it was Ms. Vaughan, not the Homeland Security Department, who "cooks her books."
Ms. Napolitano said the criticism from both sides of the immigration debate suggests that "maybe we hit the sweet spot at some point."
"We can get into the weeds on statistics," she said. "The plain fact of the matter is that ICE ERO has been extremely active."
ERO or Enforcement and Removal Operations accounted for more than 207,000 deportations in fiscal year 2010, or 53 percent of all removals. So far in fiscal year 2013, which began Oct. 1, ERO has accounted for just 38 percent of removals.
Instead, it's the Border Patrol and its parent agency, CBP, that have reported a major increase. CBP removals rose from about 165,000 deportations in 2010 to nearly 231,000 last year a jump of almost 40 percent.
Several other key figures jump out of the statistics, including a major drop in deportations stemming from the 287(g) program, which was designed to let state and local police help with immigration enforcement.
The Obama administration has been critical of part of that program and has canceled many of its agreements with localities. In its latest budget, the administration proposed cutting the program substantially.
Christopher Crane, the head of the ICE Council and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, told The Washington Times that even if the Border Patrol is deporting more people, that shouldn't mean ICE has to deport fewer.
"It's not like you diverted any resources here, so why aren't the interior enforcement numbers at a minimum in the other 46 states why aren't they consistent with the old numbers," he said. "Every law enforcement policy that this administration has implemented has really been a secret measure to stop enforcement across the board."
The shift toward more border deportations doesn't sit well with immigrant rights advocates either, though for different reasons. They say it symbolizes an overzealous effort to criminalize those caught crossing the border illegally.
Before the middle of the last decade, nearly all illegal immigrants caught at the border were simply returned a policy derided as "catch-and-release."
But beginning in 2005, the government began to take some of those it caught along the border and charged them with criminal offenses a way of upping the penalty for unauthorized crossings.
"They are increasingly focusing on criminalizing border communities and using the criminal justice system to kind of increase their detention capacities," said Emily Tucker, policy director at Detention Watch Network.
She said the Obama administration is "tricky" about the way it has reported deportations, trying to convince one side that it is stepping up removals while telling the other side that only serious criminals are targeted.
But Ms. Tucker said the administration got caught last month when it released thousands of immigrants from detention, blaming the sequester budget cuts. The administration told Congress that the people it released weren't dangers and didn't need to be held anyway but Ms. Tucker said for years the administration has told immigrant rights groups that it is holding only serious criminals.
"They're definitely talking out of both sides of their mouth, but they're getting caught on that a little more," Ms. Tucker said.
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