WASHINGTON – Immigration officials announced that they deported nearly 400,000 undocumented immigrants in fiscal 2011, setting a record for a third consecutive year under the Obama administration.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said this week that the agency removed 396,906 illegal immigrants in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, of which 216,698 were convicted criminals. Most of those had been convicted of driving under the influence.
“We have made the enforcement of our immigration laws smarter and more effective,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday. She said that was accomplished by “focusing our finite resources on removing those individuals who fit our highest priorities.”
Democrats on the committee praised Napolitano for her department’s efforts to deport undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of serious crimes.
“Your administration is the first really to take a rational approach to this issue, and the statistics speak for themselves,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said.
But Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the department should avoid deporting undocumented students who would be eligible for a path to citizenship under a federal proposal known as the DREAM Act.
“Let us focus on removing those people who are a threat to our nation. That should be our highest priority,” Durbin said. “And it certainly will not include these (undocumented) college graduates.”
But not everyone was thrilled by the record number of deportations.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based pro-immigrant organization, said in a prepared statement, that the record numbers “highlight a failure of our government to come to grips with our broken immigration system.”
Republicans on the committee were also less-than-impressed with the numbers. The GOP has criticized ICE’s policy of prosecutorial discretion in the enforcement of immigration laws.
In August, the Obama administration said it would review the cases of 300,000 undocumented immigrants and will close those that are considered low-priority offenders.
Critics have called this policy a “backdoor amnesty,” but Napolitano said Wednesday that immigrants not prosecuted as a result of prosecutorial discretion are not getting any legal status.
“At no point will any individuals be granted any form of amnesty,” she said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, however finds it alarming that certain individuals could get work permits if ICE throws out their cases.
Napolitano responded that that is a practice that has been in place since 1986 and is not a new policy that her department has created.
Certain individuals in immigration proceedings may be qualified for a work permit under certain circumstances until their case is finalized.
Durbin urged Napolitano to expedite the process of reviewing the estimated 300,000 cases. She said a pilot program is scheduled to start in coming weeks.
She said the pilot program will be very short and will be “designed to find logistical issues that happen where you’re trying to do a massive review of a lot of cases at the same time,” she said.
Uriel J. Garcia is a reporter for Cronkite News Service.