By Jordy Yager - 10/19/11 12:08 AM EDT
The U.S. deported more people — nearly 400,000 — who were in the country illegally in fiscal 2011 than ever before, according to the latest numbers released Tuesday by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bureau.
President Obama’s administration touted the startling figures as evidence of its progress in stopping illegal immigration, a record that could help the president win back independent voters who abandoned Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections.
“We are deporting hundreds of thousands of people who came to the country to work, raise families, contribute to the economy, and want nothing more than to be allowed to live and work here legally,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said in a statement.
Of the 396,906 people removed from the U.S., more than half — 216,698 —had been previously convicted of felonies or misdemeanors, according to the ICE numbers, which represent a 90 percent increase in the number of criminals deported over those for fiscal 2008. The numbers mark a 10 percent increase over criminals removed in fiscal 2010 — about 195,000.
With the Republican field of candidates fighting over who can be the toughest on border security, Democrats believe there is an opening for Obama to win over Hispanics in 2012. The demographic group was an important part of Obama’s 2008 coalition, but Hispanics have been disappointed with the president’s failure to move broad immigration reform legislation through Congress.
For much of 2011, the White House has been focused on reaching out to Hispanic groups to highlight its support for comprehensive immigration reform.
The administration also shifted its enforcement policy in June, focusing its prosecutions on illegal immigrants who had criminal records. The new Department of Homeland Security rules halted the blanket deportation of every illegal immigrant in line for exile. Instead, DHS officials said they would look at each individual on a case-by-case basis, prioritizing violent offenders and other criminals, while deferring the deportation of many students and others considered nonthreatening.
The new policy, formally announced in August and hailed at the time by Gutierrez and other immigration reform advocates, was intended to win over Hispanics.Gutierrez on Tuesday said he’s still searching for evidence that those changes have taken hold.
“The announcement cannot be merely a pacifier for those of us crying out for justice and compassion,” he said. “It must actually stop the deportation of those with deep roots in our country like long-term residents, DREAM Act students, military families, and immediate family of U.S. citizens.”
ICE Director John Morton attributed the jump in deportations to the agency’s newly revamped discretionary policy.
“Smart and effective immigration enforcement relies on setting priorities for removal and executing on those priorities,” Morton said in a statement.
“These year-end totals indicate that we are making progress, with more convicted criminals, recent border crossers, egregious immigration law violators and immigration fugitives being removed from the country than ever before,” he said.
Republicans have blasted the White House’s new enforcement policies, saying they are a backdoor path to citizenship and a cloaked version of amnesty.
“The Obama administration is cooking the books to make it look like they are enforcing immigration laws, when in reality they are enacting amnesty through inaction,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) on Tuesday.
Obama, in an online discussion targeted at Hispanic voters last month, acknowledged that the deportation numbers are “deceptive” because they do not include people who are sent back to their native country after being arrested by Border Patrol while attempting to cross the border illegally.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who is expected to be asked about the new policies when she appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, said earlier this month that the rising number of deportations shows her agency is doing its job to enforce the law.
“We cannot, on the one hand, be on the verge of removing, for the third consecutive year, a record-breaking number of unlawful individuals from this country with the highest number of criminal removals in American history and, at the same time, be abrogating our law enforcement responsibilities,” Napolitano said during a talk at American University.
ICE said that of the criminals deported, 1,119 had been convicted of committing a homicide, 5,848 had been convicted of sexual offenses and 44,653 aliens had been convicted of drug-related crimes.
This year’s numbers represent about a 1 percent increase in total people deported. In fiscal 2010, ICE removed 392,862 people who were in the country illegally.
The announcement comes as the debate over the country’s immigration laws has gained focus on Capitol Hill, in the federal court system and on the GOP presidential campaign trail.
The Justice Department (DOJ) has launched a fight against Alabama’s new immigration law — the latest in a series of state measures that require local law enforcement officials to establish whether a suspected criminal is in the country legally.
And Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain came under fire this week for comments he made suggesting that a border fence should be electrified. Cain later said he was making a joke and that he didn’t want to offend anyone, though he stood by the idea of electrifying a fence along the border.
— Originally posted at 2:31 p.m. and updated at 8:08 p.m.