WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration's deportation numbers hit a low for his presidency in the last year with nearly 370,000 total removals, down from about 410,000 in the 2012 fiscal year.
The news is sure to be criticized by both immigration reform opponents and advocates, who find deportation figures a polarizing, frustrating part of enforcement under President Barack Obama. Critics who say Obama hasn't enforced immigration laws will consider the numbers proof that his administration is shirking its duties. And for the immigration activists who have dubbed him the deporter-in-chief, the removal rate's small dip will likely be considered positive, but not enough. Obama has said he does not have the power to suspend deportations more broadly, despite pleas from activists.
Deportation numbers had been creeping up over the past years of Obama's presidency, hitting a high of 409,849 immigrants in the 2012 fiscal year. The government removed 396,906 undocumented immigrants from the United States in the 2011 fiscal year, and 392,862 people in 2010. In the 2009 fiscal year -- though Obama was only president for a portion of this period -- a total of 389,834 people were removed. About 265,000 people were deported from February 2009, when Obama's term had begun, to the end of the fiscal year.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced it deported a total of 368,644 people in the 2013 fiscal year, with 133,551 in the interior of the country and 235,093 at the border attempting to enter the United States.
ICE Acting Director John Sandweg told reporters on a press call that the number of total deportations was lower than last year in part because of the agency's focus on removing those with criminal convictions or otherwise deemed high priority.
"We did a better job of identifying serious criminal offenders," he said. "Those cases take more time. They stay in our detention centers for a longer period of time if their cases are litigated in immigration courts. Trying serious criminal cases takes more time. It does have an impact on your overall removal numbers."
Obama's total deportation record was expected to hit 2 million this year, had it continued at last year's rate, but was instead about 1.8 million as of the end of the 2013 fiscal year.
Obama has faced pressure for years over his deportation record, but calls have grown louder in recent months as the House declined to hold votes on immigration reform bills. Twenty-nine House Democrats wrote a letter to Obama earlier this month asking him to halt deportations of undocumented immigrants who would likely be allowed to stay, should comprehensive reform pass.
House Republicans have shown little interest in touching either a comprehensive bill introduced by Democrats or the bipartisan bill that passed the Senate in June. Instead, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) says they will pursue a step-by-step process next year -- made more difficult because members will be campaigning for reelection -- and so far, he has not indicated whether reform should include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
If a bill like the Senate's was signed into law, undocumented immigrants could be put in line to avoid deportations and eventually become citizens. Both Latinos and Asian-Americans strongly support a path to citizenship, according to a Pew Research Center poll released on Thursday. But asked to choose which was more important -- a path to citizenship or living and working legally without fear of deportation -- a majority of Latinos chose the latter, signaling to some that they would be open to reform that allowed undocumented immigrants to stay, even without a chance to naturalize.
While Obama has said he cannot suspend removals, he has implemented policies that prevent some undocumented immigrants from being deported. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which began accepting applications in August 2012, has granted reprieve to more than 450,000 young undocumented immigrants, or so-called Dreamers.
ICE has also created prosecutorial discretion policies meant to up the proportion of high-priority deportees: repeat offenders and serious criminals. But those policies haven't been fully implemented in the field, and a number of non- or low-level criminals get deported, regardless of DHS' stated priorities.
In 2013, people convicted of a crime made up 59 percent of the total deportations, according to ICE. The agency said 82 percent of those deported from the interior of the country had been previously convicted of a criminal offense. Out of those convicted, 72 percent were considered "level 1" or "level 2" offenders, based on their crimes. Twenty-eight percent of those deported from the interior of the U.S. and convicted of crimes were "level 3" offenders -- minor crimes that can include driving without a license.
Advocates were skeptical that the numbers reflected enough progress in focusing on the so-called "worst of the worst."
“People on all sides will look at these numbers with a great deal of skepticism," Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, said in a statement. "It's easy for the administration to say that those deported fit their priorities when this White House has practically made sneezing a criminal act for immigrants. These numbers may represent political calculus for the beltway but for immigrant families, they represent our parents, siblings, and loved ones."
This is a developing story and has been updated.