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Illegal immigration: Are Obama deportations truly aimed at 'criminals'?

US says it deported a record 216,000 'criminal aliens' in fiscal 2011, but immigration court statistics show a drop in criminal deportation proceedings from the Bush years. How do those square?

By Staff writer / December 1, 2011

County Sheriff deputies in Mesa, Ariz., arrested six workers at a dry cleaners during an immigration raid in April. Federal officials are concentrating on criminal illegal aliens, they say.

Michael Brannock/AP

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Immigration attorney Matthew Kolken is openly questioning the forthrightness of the Obama administration these days.

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He knows the Obama administration is in a tough spot. Congress is refusing to take up immigration reform, and the president is being squeezed between Republicans who claim he is soft on border crossers and Hispanics who say he has not done enough to resolve the status of longtime illegal immigrants.

Yet it is the administration's response that has left Mr. Kolken suggesting that the government "is not being truthful." Immigration officials say they are cutting a "common sense" middle path – ramping up deportations of criminal illegal immigrants but also granting prosecutors discretion to have compassion on law-abiding illegal workers who have close ties to the United States.

Statistics from an independent clearinghouse for federal data, however, appear to contradict some of the government's claims. Moreover, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University in New York says the administration has been hesitant to release details behind a record 400,000 deportations in the past year.

The result has been growing concern among critics on the left and right that the Obama administration is playing politics – holding back data that might upset the Hispanic community, which is seen as crucial to the president's reelection prospects. Obama officials refute that assertion, but Kolken, for one, is skeptical.

"What I have seen coming out of TRAC, this administration is not being truthful with regards to the data they're releasing, or at least with regard to the public-relations spin they're putting on policies," says Kolken, who works in Buffalo, N.Y. "Every time they say something, TRAC looks at the cold, hard data, and it contradicts the press releases. It's a repeating pattern."

So far, the Obama administration has been bold and specific in its assertions. The Department of Homeland Security "has implemented immigration enforcement priorities that focus limited resources on convicted criminals, repeat immigration law violators, fugitives, and recent entrants," DHS spokesman Matt Chandler said in an e-mail.

As a result, Immi­gra­tion and Customs Enforcement (ICE) removed a record 216,000 criminal illegal immigrants in fiscal year 2011 – "an 89 percent increase over 2008," Mr. Chandler added.

In May, President Obama told an audience in El Paso, Texas, that the focus was on "violent offenders and people convicted of crimes; not families, not folks who are just looking to scrape together an income."

The problem is that immigration court statistics obtained by TRAC show that actual criminal deportation proceedings have dropped below Bush administration levels. So how are deportations of criminal aliens up 89 percent over 2008?

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