ICE Removes Record Number of Immigrants in FY 2011

Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced this week it deported more immigrants during the 2011 fiscal year than it did in any year since the agency's 2003 inception. The total includes more than 216,700 people convicted of felonies and misdemeanors.

ICE, the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), removed about 397,000 people from the U.S. last fiscal year, up from 392,000 the year before, the previous high mark. The figures are in line with the Obama administration’s increased enforcement since 2009, which has resulted in more deportations and prosecutions in three years than President George W. Bush's administration accomplished in two terms.

The enforcement has become a double-edged sword for Obama and his administration, which, despite the increases, continues to draw harsh criticism from Republican lawmakers who allege he is soft on illegal immigration. It has also angered advocacy groups that claim the administration has failed to reform the country’s flawed immigration system.

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, said after the ICE announcement that the administration was misleading the public and accused Obama of “cooking the books.”

“The Obama administration continues to inflate its deportation numbers. The administration includes voluntary removals in its deportation statistics even though they impose no penalties on the offenders and make it easier for illegal immigrants to return to the U.S.,” said Smith, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “Under this administration, worksite enforcement has dropped 70 percent, making it easier for illegal immigrants to live and work in the U.S.”

A DHS spokesman confirmed to the Tribune that voluntary removals are included in this year’s count. But the official said that has been the process since the Bush administration — and that a voluntary removal is essentially a plea an immigrant enters that admits guilt. The immigrant forgoes a formal immigration court process and is then is deported, which the government says saves the courts time and money.

In June, Smith accused the administration of plotting “backdoor amnesty” and filed legislation to limit the president’s immigration-enforcement authority. Smith’s bill was in response to a memo issued that month by ICE Director John Morton directing prosecutors to use discretion when choosing which immigrants to target for deportation proceedings. He urged ICE staff to consider factors like the immigrant's education, their family situation, their criminal history and whether they pose a risk to the country’s national security. ICE announced in August it will review the 300,000 cases pending before the courts to determine who should be released and allowed to apply for work authorization.

The DHS spokesman said the June memo, combined with a similar 2010 memo that prioritizes the deportation of criminal aliens, contributed to the increase in deportations last fiscal year. The agency has emphasized focusing the agency's resources on removing immigrants who have "broken criminal laws, recently crossed our border, repeatedly violated immigration law or are fugitives from immigration court,” according to DHS's website.

Ninety percent of deportees in the last fiscal year fall under this category. According to ICE, about 55 percent of the immigrants removed were criminal offenders, 20 percent repeat immigration offenders, 12 percent were border removals and 5 percent were immigration fugitives.

But despite ICE’s claim that the figures reflect a shift in strategy, immigrants’ rights groups questioned the numbers.

“I think it’s weird to be boasting about having a record level of deportations at a time when we know the levels of immigration in this country are the lowest that they’ve been,” said Cristina Parker, the media coordinator for the Border Network for Human Rights. “That they have the highest level of deportations seemed incongruous to me.”

The University Leadership Initiative, a student group at the University of Texas that advocates for passage of the DREAM Act, also admonished the administration.

"Every day this administration continues to separate families. Hundreds of thousands of innocent families have been needlessly torn, and thousands of parents taken from children,” said ULI member Ainee Athar. “As if the horrific memory of having a parent taken from them weren't enough, now the administration is bragging about that agony through a press release."

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.