Authorities deported fewer illegal immigrants in fiscal 2013 than at any time since President Obama took office, according to secret numbers obtained by the Center for Immigration Studies that suggest Mr. Obama's nondeportation policies have hindered removals.
Just 364,700 illegal immigrants were removed in fiscal 2013, according to internal numbers from U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement that CIS released Wednesday — down 11 percent from the nearly 410,000 who were deported in 2012.
Homeland Security officials didn't dispute the numbers, but said their own counts are still preliminary.
The administration has testified to Congress that it has enough money to deport 400,000 every year, but Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at CIS, said Mr. Obama and the Homeland Security Department have placed so many illegal immigrants off-limits for deportations that they cannot find enough people to fulfill that quota.
"The policies that they've implemented, especially prosecutorial discretion and the new detainer policy, are dramatically suppressing interior enforcement," Ms. Vaughan said. "Even though they are finding out about more illegal aliens than ever before, especially more criminal aliens, the ICE agents in the field have been ordered to look the other way."
ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said the agency has not tried to hide its new priorities, which have led to changes in the demographics of deportations.
"Over the course of this administration, DHS has set clear, common sense priorities to ensure that our finite enforcement resources are focused on public safety, national security, and border security," she said.
"ICE has been vocal about the shift in our immigration enforcement strategy to focus on convicted criminals, public safety and border security and our removal numbers illustrate this," she said.
The CIS report is bound to shake up the immigration debate going on in Congress.
Immigrant-rights advocates argue that Mr. Obama is removing too many people and have called for him to halt all deportations until Congress acts.
Indeed, immigrant-rights advocates cheered the new numbers, saying that if ICE confirms them, it will mean Mr. Obama is beginning to curb excessive enforcement.
"The dragnet deportation of 400,000 immigrants annually does nothing to make our streets safer, and constitutes a huge expenditure of government resources," said Ruthie Epstein, policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union.
But those who want to see a crackdown say the administration is already ignoring most illegal immigrants, and said the latest numbers back that up.
Ms. Vaughan said that ICE agents and officers are encountering more immigrants than ever, including those with criminal records, which makes the drop in deportations more surprising. She said there's a "target-rich environment" but the administration has hamstrung deportations.
The 364,700 deportations are the lowest since fiscal year 2007, which was in the middle of the last time Congress debated immigration.
Mr. Obama and his appointees at the Homeland Security Department have issued several policies designed to put illegal immigrants in the interior of the U.S. off-limits from deportations.
Probably the most famous of those is called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which applies to so-called Dreamers, the young illegal immigrants who were usually brought to the U.S. as minors by their parents and are considered among the most sympathetic cases in the immigration debate.
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