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ICE Deporting More Immigrants Than Ever... or Are They?

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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and the Obama administration have repeatedly said this summer that the agency is on track to meet its stated goal -- or what its budget allows for: to remove about 400,000 people from the country this year.

The number, officials say, indicates that ICE is tougher than ever on immigration. The agency projected, however, to be "well under" that goal about halfway through the fiscal year -- at a rate 20 percent below the year before. Reaching 400,000, therefore, would be an achievement.

As of August 2nd, the agency had removed 310,013 people, about 90,000 removals shy of its 400,000 projection with two months left in the fiscal year. In the final two months of last fiscal year, the agency removed a little more than 67,000 people.

A review of ICE's own figures, as posted on the agency's web site, shows that the most removals in any month in the last four fiscal years, including FY2010 to date, is slightly more than 39,000. This year in only three months -- October, November and June -- have ICE removals exceeded the same month in FY2009.

So, is or isn't ICE on pace to reach 400,000?

ICE spokesman Brian P. Hale wrote in an email:

At this point in time indications are that we will meet or exceed our overall removal numbers from last year. The caveat is that criminal removals take longer to complete and the average length of stay (in detention) is longer too. So the lag time (in reporting the statistics) can take a few months.

Last year, ICE removed nearly 390,000 people. Including the "lag" from FY 2008, the agency removed 389,834 individuals. Excluding the lag, the agency removed 387,790.

The latest figures -- as of Aug. 23 -- show ICE has removed a total of 343,883 people, of which 167,742 are convicted criminals, Hale said. That means the agency has deported more noncriminals -- 176,141, to be precise -- than criminals so far this year. A month earlier -- as of July 22 -- the agency' figures showed total removals at 292,663.

The record the Obama administration is setting is the removal of criminals, as ICE expects to have a significantly higher number of criminal removals than last year, Hale said. Many of those people have been found through a program that enables local law enforcement to identify immigrants with criminal records who are in their custody. The program, dubbed Secure Communities, has been criticized for sweeping up noncriminals despite the stated goal of targeting the "worst of the worst" criminals.

Overall, the Obama administration seems hard-pressed to please anyone when it comes to immigration. As the rhetoric heats up this political season, the right has hammered the White House for being soft on immigration enforcement while the left has slammed Obama and ICE for being too tough. John Morton, the agency chief, just says the administration is putting more people into immigration proceedings than ever before. But some telling shifts may be happening.

ICE has begun a review of all cases in immigration courts, and in some instances is dropping efforts to deport illegal immigrants and legal residents who have committed minor crimes.

Morton also issued a memo recently instructing ICE attorneys and immigration officials to dismiss deportation charges in certain situations where, among other concerns, the person has properly requested to stay in the country, and has an application or petition that appears eligible for approval.

The issue at hand addressed in the latest Morton memo is the growing backlog -- nearly 250,000 -- in the nation's immigration courts. Morton points out in the memo that in July 2009 there were roughly 17,000 removal cases held up in immigration courts because of pending applications.