MIAMI (AP) — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said Tuesday his agency deported nearly 400,000 individuals during the fiscal year that ended in September, the largest number of removals in the agency's history.
Morton announced the Fiscal 2011 numbers in Washington, saying about 55 percent of those deported had felony or misdemeanor convictions. Officials said the number of those convicted of crimes was up 89 percent from 2008.
Authorities could not immediately say how many of those crimes related to re-entering the U.S. after being deported. Individuals can be convicted of a felony for returning to the U.S. or being found in the U.S. after they were deported.
Among the 396,906 individuals deported were more than 1,000 convicted of homicide. Another 5,800 were sexual offenders, and about 80,000 people were convicted of drug related crimes or driving under the influence. Last year, the total was roughly 393,000.
"This comes down to focusing our resources as best we can on our priorities," Morton said. "We continue to hope for comprehensive immigration reform at a national level, working with the Congress, but in the meantime, we work with the resources we have, under the laws we have."
The announcement comes as the Obama administration has sought to address critics on both sides of the immigration debate. Immigration advocates complain law enforcement officials are spending too much of their scarce resources rounding up families living illegally in the country who otherwise are law-abiding. Others say the administration isn't doing enough to stop the flow of illegal immigration and protect Americans from potential foreign terrorists and other criminals.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said the agency is focusing its resources on criminals, recent border crossers, those who repeatedly cross the border and those people the department considers fugitives.
Authorities say two-thirds of those deported last year either recently crossed the border or had done so repeatedly.
But House Judiciary Chairman U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, an outspoken opponent of Obama administration's immigration policies, called the ICE numbers inflated. He argued they include people who voluntarily agree to leave the country with no penalties and can easily return to the U.S. — especially along the border.
In a statement, Smith added that under the Obama administration, worksite enforcement has dropped 70 percent.
"We could free up millions of jobs for citizens and legal immigrants if we simply enforced our immigration laws," he added.
In 2009, the administration shifted from high-profile workplace sweeps to less attention-grabbing auditing of I-9 forms — the documents used to verify that employees are legally eligible to work in the U.S. The department says the shift better focuses resources on the employers who draw in illegal workers to the country.
In Miami, Susana Barciela, policy director for Americans for Immigration Justice, also expressed concerns about the numbers.
"We are worried because many of the people who are being deported have committed minor crimes," she said.
She mentioned cases in which immigrants were detained and convicted of driving with broken taillights, polarized windows or expired driver's licenses, common among illegal immigrants who are unable to legally obtain or renew their licenses and then are deported.
The Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Forum called the number of deportations a waste of tax payer dollars.
"In reality, the numbers highlight a failure of our government to come to grips with our broken immigration system," the group's statement said.
"At $23,000 per individual to go through the complete deportation process, immigration enforcement without fixing our broken system is not sustainable. We cannot continue to spend billions of dollars, year after year, while denying we have a more fundamental problem_that our immigration system no longer serves America well."
The announcement came the same day two TV networks will air separate shows examining the immigration detention system. "Lost in Detention," on PBS' Frontline, and CNBC's documentary, "Billions Behind Bars," which examines the private prison industry and the detention of immigrants. Immigrant groups in cities across the country have organized viewing parties, protests and other events in connection with the PBS program.
Associated Press writer Alicia Caldwell contributed to this report from Washington.