WASHINGTON -- The U.S. deported nearly 400,000 illegal immigrants last year, and an increasing number of them were convicted criminals, according to figures set for release Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security.
Deportations have been on the rise for the past decade, and the 396,906 illegal immigrants deported in fiscal year 2011 is the highest number yet, according to the figures.
Under the Obama administration, Homeland Security issued new priorities to focus deportations on convicted criminals, people who pose threats to national security and repeated border-crossers. Last year, 55% of those deported were convicted criminals, the highest percentage in nearly a decade.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said the numbers reflect the administration's "focus on sensible immigration."
"In the face of limited resources, we have to prioritize, and that starts with criminal offenders," Morton said. "We are making sure that people who game the system face the consequences."
Critics say the numbers illustrate that the administration is intent on finding ways for illegal immigrants to stay in the country.
Obama last year endorsed the DREAM Act, which would have granted legal status to some children of illegal immigrants, but it failed to pass Congress.
And Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has questioned the reprioritizing of deportations, arguing that it amounts to a free pass for illegal immigrants who have not committed major crimes.
"It's disappointing that the Obama administration continues to put illegal immigrants before the American people," Smith said. "We could free up millions of jobs for citizens and legal immigrants if we simply enforced our immigration laws."
Others look at the numbers and wonder how they could be interpreted as leniency.
"For billions of dollars to be spent so that 45% of the people we're deporting are not convicted criminals is not a good use of our enforcement dollars," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which supports a path for some of the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants to become citizens.
Of the convicted criminals deported last year, 1,119 were convicted of homicide, 5,848 of sexual offenses, 44,653 of drug-related offenses and 35,927 of driving under the influence, according to the Homeland Security figures.
The number of illegal immigrants deported has risen from 116,782 in 2000. The percentage of criminal deportations was at 31% when Obama assumed office.