WASHINGTON -- Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials announced on Friday that the agency surpassed its record number of deportations in the past fiscal year, but also will enact reform of a controversial immigration enforcement program that could lead to fewer non-criminal immigrants being removed from the country.
The agency deported 409,849 immigrants in the 2012 fiscal year, up from 396,906 immigrants last year. More than 392,000 immigrants were deported in the 2010 fiscal year.
ICE touted one improvement: It reported that 96 percent of removals fell into a priority category -- not necessarily a high one -- and that about 55 percent overall were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors.
"While the [fiscal year] 2012 removals indicate that we continue to make progress in focusing resources on criminal and priority aliens, with more convicted criminals being removed from the country than ever before, we are constantly looking for ways to ensure that we are doing everything we can to utilize our resources in a way that maximizes public safety," ICE Director John Morton said in a statement.
It's a mixed bag for Obama's immigration critics, who have long decried what they consider overzealousness by his administration to deport immigrants. Obama has promised to make a major push next year for comprehensive immigration reform that would give legal status to some of the estimated 11.1 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S.
Until then, though, some enforcement programs remain controversial, and an area of concern for reform advocates.
The administration has argued it has the funding to deport 400,000 immigrants per year, and therefore is obligated to do so. Under Obama, the Department of Homeland Security has implemented some reforms that are meant to better target deportations on the "worst of the worst" -- gang members and serious criminals -- rather than otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants.
The agency announced another such reform on Friday to its detainer policy, which involves requests to local police to hold individuals so ICE can pick them up. They're commonly used under the Secure Communities program, and have been criticized as expensive to local police and too prone to netting non- and low-level criminal offenders -- violating the stated ICE policy of prioritizing repeat offenders and those deemed dangerous.
Morton explained the detainer policy changes in a memo to staff, reiterating the agency's definition of high-priority immigrants and announcing it would make those guidelines clearer during requests to local law enforcement. ICE will review the implementation of the new policies in six months, according to the memo.
ICE also announced it will discontinue some agreements under the 287(g) program, which is being phased out and replaced by Secure Communities. Local police will no longer be deputized under task forces to enforce immigration law, although the program will remain in jails.
Ali Noorani, an advocate for immigration reform and head of National Immigration Forum, applauded ICE for phasing out the 287(g) program on the streets, but decried the record deportation rates and the decision to continue the program in jails.
The deportation record is "a dubious accomplishment," Noorani said in a statement. "In reality, these numbers reflect the urgency with which our government needs to create a better immigration process. Instead of spending our limited resources on deportations, we need laws that strengthen our families, our communities and our economy."
Earlier on HuffPost:
The Template: California Proposition 187 (1994)
California's Proposition 187 was submitted to the voters with the full support of then Republican governor Pete Wilson. It essentially blamed undocumented immigrants for the poor performance of the state economy in the early 1990s. The law called for cutting off benefits to undocumented immigrants: prohibiting their access to health care, public education, and other social services in California. It also required state authorities to report anyone who they suspected was undocumented. <strong>Status:</strong> The law passed with the support of 55 percent of the voters in 1994 but declared unconstitutional 1997. The law was killed in 1999 when a new governor, Democrat Gray Davis, refused to appeal a judicial decision that struck down most of the law. Even though short-lived, the legislation paved the way for harsher immigration laws to come. On the other hand, the strong reaction from the Hispanic community and immigration advocates propelled a drive for naturalization of legal residents and created as many as one million new voters.
The Worst: Arizona SB 1070
The Arizona Act made it a misdemeanor for an undocumented immigrant to be within the state lines of Arizona without legal documents allowing their presence in the U.S. This law has been widely criticized as xenophobic and for encouraging racial profiling. It requires state authorities to inquire about an individual's immigration status during an arrest when there is "reasonable suspicion" that the individual is undocumented. The law would allow police to detain anyone who they believe was in the country illegally. <strong>Status:</strong> The law was signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010. But it has generated a swirl of controversy and questions about its constitutionality. A federal judge issued a ruling that blocked what critics saw as some of the law's harshest provisions. House: 35-31 (4/12/2011)
Following Arizona's Footsteps: Georgia HB 87
The controversy over Arizona's immigration law was followed by heated debate over Georgia's own law. HB 87 required government agencies and private companies to check the immigration status of applicants. This law also limited some government benefits to people who could prove their legal status. <strong>Status:</strong> Although a federal judge temporarily blocked parts of the law considered too extreme, it went into effect on July 1st. 2011. House: 113-56 Senate: 39-17
Verifying Authorized Workers: Pennsylvania HB 1502
This bill, which was approved in 2010, bans contractors and subcontractors employ undocumented workers from having state construction contracts. The bill also protects employees who report construction sites that hire illegal workers. To ensure that contractors hire legal workers, the law requires employers to use the identification verification system E-verify, based on a compilation of legally issued Social Security numbers. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved on June 8th 2010. House: 188-6 (07/08/2010) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by DonkeyHotey</a>
A Spin Off of Arizona: Utah HB 497
Many states tried to emulate Arizona's SB 1070 law. However, most state legislatures voted against the proposals. Utah's legislature managed to approve an immigration law based on a different argument. Taking into consideration the criticism of racial profiling in Arizona, Utah required ID cards for "guest workers" and their families. In order to get such a card workers must pay a fee and have clean records. The fees go up to $2,500 for immigrants who entered the country illegally and $1,000 for immigrants who entered the country legally but were not complying with federal immigration law, <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/06/nation/la-na-illegal-immigration-20110306" target="_hplink">according to the LA Times.</a> <strong>Status: </strong> Law went into effect on 03/15/2011 House: 59-15 (03/04/2011) Senate: 22-5 (03/04/2011)
The Most Comprehensive: Florida HB-1C
Florida's immigration law prohibits any restrictions on the enforcement of federal immigration law. It makes it unlawful for undocumented immigrants within the state to apply for work or work as an independent contractor. It forbids employers from hiring immigrants if they are aware of their illegal status and requires work applicants to go through the E-verify system in order to check their Social Security number. <strong>Status: </strong>effective since October 1st, 2010
The Hot Seat: Alabama HB 56
The new immigration law in Alabama is considered the toughest in the land, even harder than Arizona's SB 1070. It prohibits law enforcement officers from releasing an arrested person before his or her immigration status is determined. It does not allow undocumented immigrants to receive any state benefit, and prohibits them from enrolling in public colleges, applying for work or soliciting work in a public space. The law also prohibits landlords from renting property to undocumented immigrants, and employers from hiring them. It requires residents to prove they are citizens before they become eligible to vote. The law asked every school in the state to submit an annual report with the number of presumed undocumented students, but this part, along with others, were suspended by federal courts. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved June 2nd, 2011 House: 73-28 (04/05/2011) Senate: 23-11 (05/05/2011) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/longislandwins/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by longislandwins</a>