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More illegal immigrants deported for traffic offenses. Problem for Obama?

US deported a record number of illegal immigrants for drunken driving and other traffic violations in 2010. The trend makes immigrant advocates furious and the get-tough crowd suspicious.

By Staff writer / July 22, 2011

Protesters demonstrate in Birmingham, Ala., on June 25 against the state's new law cracking down on illegal immigration. An increase in the number of illegal immigrants deported for drunken driving and other traffic violations could undermine President Obama's support among Hispanic voters.

Jay Reeves/AP

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Atlanta

The US notched a record number of deportations of illegal immigrants in 2010, according to an analysis of government statistics, with the spike driven primarily by increased deportations of people stopped for drunken driving and other traffic violations.

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Drunken driving incidents involving illegal immigrants are known to inflame public anger over border security, and the Obama administration's deportation crackdown could be seen as a practical, and potentially popular, response to a public safety issue.

But news of the traffic-related deportations also highlights a political problem for the administration. It risks loss of Hispanics' support for Democrats, even as it seems to do little to persuade those on the right, who insist that President Obama is bent on letting most illegal immigrants off the hook in anticipation of a national amnesty program, that the administration is serious about immigration enforcement.

"This is the strange world of immigration policy that we're in right now, where everyone is building their own narrative of how these things fit together," says Noah Pickus, co-director of the Brookings-Duke Immigration Policy Roundtable, in Durham, N.C. "For some, the idea that the Obama administration is taking a traffic violation, and driving immigration policy through that, is too much. On the other hand, the notion that we should use a lot more discretion and focus more on [immigrant] criminals is precisely what's too little for others."

Some 393,000 people were deported in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2010, about half of whom had committed crimes, according to an Associated Press analysis. The report, citing US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data, stated that 27,635 people were deported after receiving drunken driving citations, compared with 10,851 in the last full year of the Bush administration. In addition, 13,028 people were deported for less serious traffic violations, three times the 4,527 who were deported two years earlier.

For some, especially in Democratic-leaning states including New York, Massachusetts, and Illinois, the report confirms concerns that Obama has not adhered to his promise of targeting only the "worst of the worst" for deportation. Several states are brawling with the administration over the Secure Communities program, announcing they are pulling out of it. Secure Communities uses a federal immigration database to help local police identify illegal immigrants among people charged with local crimes and misdemeanors.

Meanwhile, those who want tougher immigration enforcement point to recent ICE changes around prosecutorial discretion as evidence that the Obama administration does not intend to enforce the law aggressively.

They cite a June memo from ICE director John Morton that detailed different classes of illegal immigrants that ICE personnel should consider "sensitive" when deciding whether to prosecute for deportation. It included minors and the elderly, pregnant women, college graduates, and those who have been living in America for a long time.

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