The number of people deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement this year is the lowest since before the start of the Obama administration, after years of record highs.
ICE officials reported Thursday that in fiscal year 2013, which ended Sept. 30, the agency removed 368,644 immigrants from the United States. That's fewer than the 369,221 people removed from the country in fiscal year 2008, before President Barack Obama took office.
Since then, deportations have been steadily on the rise, with a record 409,849 removals in fiscal year 2012. The rising deportations have prompted harsh criticism of Obama's immigration enforcement policies, most recently in the form of protesters and politicians calling on Obama to halt deportations and give more immigrants a reprieve from removal.
ICE officials said Thursday that there's been no concerted effort to decrease removals, other than the Obama administration's ongoing focus on deporting immigrants with criminal convictions.
In a press call, ICE acting director John Sandweg offered two reasons for the slower deportation rate, one being that having more convicted offenders in the pipeline slows down the deportation process. According to the agency, nearly 60 percent of the people removed from the country this year had a previous criminal offense.
"We did a better job of identifying criminal offenders," Sandweg said. "Those cases take more time. They stay in the detention centers for longer periods of time as their cases are litigated."
Second, he said, as more Central Americans have been getting caught trying to enter illegally, processing their removal takes more time, as they can't simply be returned across the border to Mexico. This also slows down the deportation rate, Sandweg said.
For the first time this year, the agency distinguished between interior and border arrests in its year-end removal numbers. This year, 235,093 of the immigrants removed by ICE were apprehended during "or shortly after" trying to enter the country illegally, while 133,551 were arrested in the interior of the country.
Of the latter group, 82 percent had been previously convicted of a criminal arrest, according to the agency. Most of these had been convicted of "aggravated felonies" (which for deportation purposes includes some misdemeanors) and other deportable offenses.
As for non-criminals deportees - 151,834 this year - the vast majority (85 percent) were people caught trying to enter illegally, according to ICE. From the agency's report released today: 'Overall, 93 percent of all ICE’s non-criminal removals were of recent border crossers, repeat immigration violators, or fugitives from the immigration courts.'
More than 1.9 million people have been removed from the U.S. since fiscal year 2009. This year, the top five countries people were deported to were Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
See a detailed report of this year's ICE removals here.