Authorities deported a record number of immigrants in 2011, undercutting the Republican charge that President Obama is soft on immigration.
While Republicans have portrayed Obama as a pro-amnesty president who regularly sidesteps immigration laws, the data tells a different story. The Department of Homeland Security reported on Friday that Obama presided over the deportation of 391,953 immigrants in 2011, slightly lower than the all-time record set in 2009, also under his presidency.
The unprecedented levels of deportation have exposed the Obama administration to heavy criticism from some key supporters, including Latinos, who overwhelmingly backed the president in 2008 in part because of the promise of comprehensive immigration reform. That has not yet happened.
The administration has defended the high numbers of deportations by arguing that it is focusing on immigrants who have criminal records or who pose a threat to public safety. The Department of Homeland Security has rolled out broad new guidelines that, consistent with that vow, instruct immigration agents to prioritize certain categories of undocumented immigrants for expulsion.
But the newly released data shows that, of the nearly 400,000 immigrants removed in 2011, only about 188,000 had prior criminal convictions. Immigration advocates have argued that the administration's enforcement policies have swept up many non-criminal immigrants, pointing to rising numbers of immigrants deported for traffic violations and to a program, instituted under President George W. Bush but expanded under Obama, that pools resources between local law enforcement and federal immigration agents.
All of this has occurred as Congress has been unable to make any progress on immigration -- the high levels of deportation have failed to win enough support for a legislative fix. A piece of legislation known as the DREAM Act that would have offered citizenship to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children withered in the Senate in 2010, denying Democrats and immigration advocates a prized goal.
In response, President Obama announced earlier this summer a program that mimics the intent of the DREAM Act by offering many young immigrants a reprieve from deportations and a chance to secure work permits. The program does not offer a path to citizenship or any sort of legal status.
Republicans have lambasted the president for the move, saying he has circumvented Congress and instructed immigration agents to effectively ignore the law. The timing of the program, announced during a presidential race, also suggests that it is an attempt by Obama to shore up his already strong support among Latino voters -- a critique that Republican nominee Mitt Romney has pressed on the campaign trail.