The Obama administration is deporting fewer people than it did in 2011 or 2012, but has ousted more than 110,000 illegal immigrants this year who didn't have criminal records, according to statistics that call into question the Obama administration's public statements about its deportation policies.
Continued deportation of rank-and-file illegal immigrants is fueling outrage by advocacy groups that want the Obama administration to halt most deportations while Congress hashes out an immigration bill.
"DHS consistently misleads the public about who it is deporting," said Jessica Karp, staff attorney at the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. "The Obama administration has created a 'criminal immigrant' boogeyman to justify unprecedented deportation levels. But when we look at the facts, again and again we see that the majority of those deported have no or only very minor misdemeanor convictions, including traffic offenses."
Deportations have long been a contentious issue for the administration, which is trying to balance Republican demands that it enforce the law against Hispanic lawmakers and interest groups that say the president is deporting too many people already.
The latest numbers released by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to The Washington Times show that so far in fiscal 2013, the administration has deported more than 110,000 illegal immigrants who had no criminal records.
Numbers compiled and released by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a research group at Syracuse University, show the administration has begun pursuing deportation against about 100,000 people for immigration violations, rather than criminal charges, so far this year.
TRAC, which looks at federal filings in immigration courts, says 14.7 percent of removal cases filed by the administration this year have alleged criminal violations. That figure has dropped steadily from 16.6 percent in 2010.
Although the drop isn't steep, the trend suggests that the administration is finding it increasingly difficult to meet its goal of deporting 400,000 people a year while focusing chiefly on the most dangerous immigrants.
"They're not achieving their stated goals," said David Burnham at TRAC. "They have been claiming 'We're going to go after criminals,' and this decline is big in comparison to that rhetoric."
ICE officials dispute the TRAC numbers, saying they don't show an accurate snapshot of the deportation picture.
The agency, which handles interior enforcement and deportations, said the TRAC criminal data highlights cases in which ICE is trying to deport legal immigrants who committed crimes. In cases involving illegal immigrants, ICE can deport them for being in the country illegally and doesn't need to resort to arguing their criminal history, so potential criminal behavior doesn't show up in those numbers.
"As such, the TRAC data does not measure the number of convicted criminals ICE removes and is actually indicative of our use of discretion in not seeking to strip green card holders of their status for petty crimes," said an ICE official who asked not to be named.
The deportation numbers ICE released to The Times back up that complex picture.
They show that through June 1, ICE had deported 246,333 immigrants, which is a dip in the total number of deportations from the 264,518 recorded at this point in 2011 or the 275,067 at this point in 2012.
Of those deported this year, 55 percent had criminal records. That is higher than the 53 percent in 2012, but less than the 56.7 percent in 2011.
The numbers have been released at a time when the immigration issue is dominating Capitol Hill.
The Senate passed an immigration bill to legalize illegal immigrants and even to let some previously deported illegal immigrants apply to come back into the U.S. under the same terms. But prospects for getting a similar bill out of the House and striking a final compromise are increasingly dim.
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, demanded that the House take and pass the Senate bill as is, but House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, laughed off that suggestion, saying the Senate bill puts illegal immigrants ahead of security.
"I've made it clear, and I'll make it clear again: The House does not intend to take up the Senate bill," Mr. Boehner said. "The American people expect that we'll have strong border security in place before we begin the process of legalizing and fixing our legal immigration system."
The Obama administration contends it has enough funding to deport about 400,000 people each year, and Mr. Obama said his agents should focus on deporting those with the most serious criminal histories or other priority categories. ICE issued several memos making most rank-and-file illegal immigrants exempt from deportation.
The most famous of those memos was issued last year and carved out so-called Dreamers, the young adults who arrived in the U.S. as children. The administration said Dreamers should not be deported and should be given work permits.
Groups that want a crackdown argue that the administration is artificially boosting its deportation statistics and say the real number being deported from the interior of the U.S. is much lower.
But immigrant rights groups say the figures show the administration is deporting many people without criminal records, which contradicts what the administration says is its position.
According to ICE statistics, the administration had deported 110,937 people who didn't have criminal records between Oct. 1 and June 1, which comprise the first eight months of fiscal 2013.
In a statement, ICE said it is trying to balance its goals.
"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is focused on sensible, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens and egregious immigration law violators," an agency spokeswoman said.
The administration also argues that many of those it is deporting without criminal records still meet its other "priority" categories, which include fugitives who are ignoring deportation orders or repeatedly break immigration laws.
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