Deportations of undocumented immigrants dropped 10 percent in 2013, the first annual decline in a decade, because a shift in enforcement strategy under President Barack Obama has increased the time it takes to complete cases, immigration officials said.
The U.S. deported 368,644 undocumented immigrants during the 12 months that ended Sept. 30. That compares to a record 409,900 removals the previous year, according to ICE records.
“We did a better job of identifying serious criminals” and “serious criminal cases take more time,” said U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement acting director John Sandweg at a news conference today in Washington.
Deportations are at the center of a debate in Washington over whether to change the nation’s immigration laws to provide a path to citizenship for some of the estimated 12 million people living in the U.S. illegally. While Republicans generally insist on tougher enforcement, some Democrats and advocates for immigrants have criticized Obama for not doing more to halt deportations.
Obama highlighted record deportations in his first term to show he was tough on immigration enforcement and the number of deportations rose steadily. About 1.93 million people have been deported during Obama’s five years in office. That approaches the eight-year total under former President George W. Bush.
That has created a backlash among some Obama supporters, and the president has been met by protesters at speeches urging him to use executive authority to stop deportations, a position supported by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Obama, whose victory margins in two presidential elections was bolstered Hispanic voters, has taken steps meant to redirect enforcement efforts.
In June 2012, five months before his re-election, he exempted from deportation certain undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Last month, the Department of Homeland Security halted deportations for family members of people serving in the U.S. military members.
The Obama administration shifted priorities for immigration enforcement starting in 2011, putting the focus on those who pose threats to national security, public safety and border security. That was a departure from Bush’s policies, which emphasized raids on businesses suspected of hiring undocumented immigrants.
Fiscal 2013 was the first full year that many ICE agents were trained in the new procedures, ICE documents show.
While immigrants from Mexico accounted for two-thirds of all deportations, Sandweg said the number of Central Americans removed from the U.S. was on the rise.
“Because those cases take a longer period of time to remove than would an individual from Mexico, it impacts our overall removal numbers as well,” Sandweg said.
Sandweg said 133,551 of deported immigrants were removed from the interior of the country, while others were arrested at or near the U.S. border with Mexico.
Among those apprehended in the U.S. interior, 82 percent had been previously convicted of a crime, a record high, Sandweg said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Michael C. Bender in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org