The Obama administration deported just 1 percent of illegal immigrants living within the interior of the U.S. last year, according to statistics released Thursday, which signals that most illegal immigrants face little chance of being kicked out of the country.
In fiscal year 2013, which ended Sept. 30, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed 133,551 immigrants, down more than 25 percent from the previous year, even as the estimated number of illegal immigrants grew to 11.7 million.
The numbers underscore the lack of capacity — and of political will — to remove most illegal immigrants.
The administration said the drop in interior enforcement is deliberate as it tries to focus more on border security and recent border crossers, and to go after immigrants in the interior only if they have amassed serious criminal records.
“Increasing border security is a top priority, and the results you see today clearly illustrate our ongoing commitment to this goal,” said John Sandweg, acting director of ICE.
When border and interior deportations are included, that total fell 10 percent from 2012, from nearly 410,000 to 368,644 this year. That is the lowest figure of President Obama’s five-year tenure.
The drop didn’t please either side of the immigration debate.
Even with the dip, immigrant rights advocates said, Mr. Obama has deported more than 2 million illegal immigrants during his time in office. They said the deportations were inhumane and included many parents of young children.
“How much longer do we have to stand by and watch our families get torn apart by unscrupulous immigration agents?” said Eddie Carmona, campaign manager for the Campaign for Citizenship.
Activists disputed Mr. Sandweg’s claim that 98 percent of those kicked out of the country are “priority” category offenders who either have violated immigration laws repeatedly, have amassed criminal records or are fugitives.
“It’s easy for the administration to say that those deported fit their priorities when this White House has practically made sneezing a criminal act for immigrants,” said Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “These numbers may represent political calculus for the Beltway, but for immigrant families, they represent our parents, siblings and loved ones.”
From the other side is criticism that only one-third of deportations came from the interior, calling into question the administration’s enforcement claims.
“This information further reveals that the administration has been manipulating its figures to mislead the public,” said Stephen Miller, spokesman for Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who led opposition to a legalization bill this year.
“The administration’s catch-and-release policy not only needlessly jeopardizes public safety but undermines the wages and employment of struggling U.S. workers,” Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Obama’s aides repeatedly have issued policies carving out categories of illegal immigrants who they say shouldn’t be deported. The most prominent was a decision last year to halt deportations of “Dreamers,” or younger illegal immigrants usually brought to the country as minors by their parents.
Other policies have discouraged deportations of parents and family members of veterans or active-duty troops.
Homeland Security officials testified to Congress this year that they are budgeted to detain and deport about 400,000 people a year, nearly 10 percent more than they managed to deport this year.
Trying to explain why the overall number dropped, Mr. Sandweg said more illegal immigrants are from outside of Mexico and are harder and more costly to deport. He said the administration is trying to target criminals, whose deportations also are more costly.
However, the number of criminal alien deportations dropped from 225,390 in 2012 to 216,810 this year.
Polling shows just how deep the fear of deportation runs in immigrant communities.
A Pew Hispanic Center survey of Asians and Hispanics in the U.S. released Thursday found people in those communities say avoiding deportation is more important to them than getting on an actual path to citizenship.
“By 55 percent to 35 percent, Hispanics say that they think being able to live and work in the United States legally without the threat of deportation is more important for unauthorized immigrants than a pathway to citizenship. Asian Americans hold a similar view, albeit by a smaller margin — 49 percent to 44 percent,” the Pew researchers said in their report.
Those findings could upend the immigration debate. For years, Democrats have fought for full citizenship rights for current illegal immigrants, arguing that anything less would be creating second-class residents, but many Republicans say granting citizenship is tantamount to amnesty.
The Pew findings suggest a middle ground, though Mr. Obama and other Democrats have said they cannot accept a bill that doesn’t have a full pathway to citizenship.