Authorities last year removed the fewest number of illegal immigrants from Ohio and Michigan since 2007, but deportations of criminal offenders reached a record high, officials said.
In fiscal year 2012, Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed 5,872 individuals from the Buckeye State and its northern neighbor. Deportations were down nearly 20 percent from the previous year. ICE combines data for Ohio and Michigan.
But ICE officials said the agency removed more criminally convicted illegal immigrants, which is consistent with their priorities.
“More important than the actual number of individuals removed is the type of individuals on which enforcement resources are focused,” said Khaalid Walls, ICE spokesman for the field office that covers Ohio.
However, some groups that advocate for immigrant rights said they are concerned that ICE continues to detain and remove people with no serious criminal records.
Last fiscal year, ICE removed 1,426 fewer illegal immigrants from Ohio and Michigan than in 2011, agency data show. It was the fewest removals in the region since 2007, when the agency deported 5,137 people.
The regional trend does not match the national picture. U.S. removals have steadily risen for years, and the agency again set a new record last year with 409,849 deportations. The top five countries of origins of deportees were Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras El Salvador and Canada.
About 96 percent of removals fell within one of ICE’s enforcement priorities, which are illegal immigrants who broke criminal laws, threats to national security, recent border crossers and repeat violators of immigration law, Walls said.
About 3,851 of the removals in Michigan and Ohio last year were criminally convicted illegal immigrants, he said.
ICE officials said the agency continues to narrow its enforcement focus on the worst offenders.
“By targeting criminal aliens and egregious immigration violators, we are ensuring the best use of agency resources with a continued focus on public safety,” Walls said.
In December 2012, ICE announced new guidelines that it says limits the use of detainers on immigrant violators who meet the agency’s enforcement priorities, and not people who are arrested for minor misdemeanor offenses, such as traffic offenses and petty crimes, Walls said.
ICE often identifies illegal immigrants in local jails using a fingerprint-sharing program called Secure Communities. Under the program, authorities can compare the fingerprints of jail inmates with a national immigration database, and ICE often places detainers on inmates whose information matches names in the system.
The national increase in removals is attributable to Secure Communities and similar programs, officials said.
But some groups said it is unclear whether immigration authorities are actually removing more criminal offenders or just classifying more of the people they remove as criminals.
“Prioritizing public safety is a good thing, and ICE has shifted its priorities,” said Shakyra Diaz, policy director of the ACLU of Ohio. “But are they truly changing their priorities to focus on serious offenders, or in reality are they simply defining their terms differently to apply it to more people?”
Residing in the country without permission is a violation of civil law, similar to a traffic offense, Diaz said. She said it is possible ICE may be labeling some immigration violators as criminals even though they have not broken any serious criminal laws.
“There are a lot of questions,” she said. “It would be interesting to know what actually crimes are lumped into this category.”
In northwest Ohio, most of the people apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol are low-wage workers, and authorities often classify the people they detain and remove as criminals even if they have only very minor violations on their records, said Mark Heller, managing attorney for the migrant farmworker and immigration program with the Ohio-based Advocates for Basic Legal Equality.
“I do not believe that ICE is now apprehending and removing a more dangerous group of persons than previously,” he said.
Heller said apprehension efforts are expensive, costing thousands of dollars, and that does not include expenses tied to detention, court proceedings and returning workers back to their home countries. Immigrant rights advocates said the country needs comprehensive immigration reform to provide a realistic path to citizenship and due process.