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Top five immigration stories of 2011, #2: More record deportations

A man is prepared for a deportation flight bound for San Salvador in Mesa, Arizona, December 2010
A man is prepared for a deportation flight bound for San Salvador in Mesa, Arizona, December 2010
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

In fiscal year 2011, the Obama administration broke its own deportation record for the second straight year, deporting close to 400,000 people in the year that ended last Sept. 30.

It wouldn't be a stretch to say that news of another record-breaking year for removals was pretty much expected, with the continued expansion of federal immigration enforcement programs like Secure Communities and 287(g), both of which have fed the deportation pipeline in recent years with a steady flow of cases stemming from local law enforcement.

The number of deportations has crept upward steadily for years now. According to a federal chart, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has removed these many people in recent years:

FY 2010 = 392,862

FY 2009 = 389,834

FY 2008 = 369,221

FY 2007 = 291,060

Still, it's a story that has legs, as newspaper editors used to say, and which continues to raise questions.

Among these questions is just who being deported, and whether the programs being used are working as intended. The Obama administration has long made a point that its focus is on deporting immigrants (including legal residents) with criminal records. An October press release from ICE read that "nearly 55 percent or 216,698 of the people removed were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors — an 89 percent increase in the removal of criminals since FY 2008."

But analyses of federal deportation stats have pointed out gray areas. Last summer, an Associated Press analysis revealed that among those counted as criminal deportees are a growing number of people who have been deported following traffic and DUI arrests; the number of those deported following less-serious, non-DUI traffic offenses had close to tripled over a two-year period. From a story in July:

The U.S. deported nearly 393,000 people in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, half of whom were considered criminals.

Of those, 27,635 had been arrested for drunken driving, more than double the 10,851 deported after drunken driving arrests in 2008, the last full year of the Bush administration, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement data provided to The Associated Press.

An additional 13,028 were deported last year after being arrested on less serious traffic law violations, nearly three times the 4,527 traffic offenders deported two years earlier, according to the data.

DUI offenders made up a large number (35,927) of those deported in fiscal year 2011, as did people convicted of drug-related offenses (44,653). Violent offenders (homicide, 1,119; sexual offenses, 5,848) were fewer in number, according to ICE.

As for the non-criminals being deported, some are being ensnared through the methods used to target serious criminals, another criticism of the administration's enforcement tactics. Reports have indicated that nearly half the immigrants who have been caught up in the embattled Secure Communities program, which allows for biometric data of people fingerprinted in local jails to be shared with immigration officials, have been non-criminals or low-level misdemeanor offenders.

A more recent report from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) tallied up the criminal charges used in the nation's immigration courts, coming up with a much lower percentage of criminal charges found in deportation cases. ICE called the analysis "wildly misleading," attributing the difference to the fact that the agency doesn't always note prior criminal records in deportation cases. However, these individuals still make the annual criminal tally in the federal deportation stats.

The growing number of deportations has had broader domestic repercussions as more immigrants are sent back to their native countries, among them a growing number of mixed-status or legal-resident families in the U.S. left without a parent (or sometimes both parents), and a growing number of U.S. citizen children of deported parents landing in foster care.

In August, the Obama administration announced that it would review some 300,000 deportation cases to ferret out those deemed a "low priority" for removal under a set of prosecutorial discretion guidelines released by ICE earlier this year, again stating that its focus is on criminals. Among those who could be spared are undocumented immigrants who arrived here as children, college students and graduates, and immigrants with U.S. military ties. The review process is being pilot-tested now.

If the reviews are expanded and some deportation cases are indeed thrown out (though these individuals would still not have legal status - but that's another story), will it make a dent in the deportation caseload next year? Or will the continued expansion of programs like Secure Communities, which the federal government has declared mandatory and is expected to be operating nationwide by 2013, make for another record year of removals in 2012?

Come back tomorrow for top story #1.