WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has quietly slowed deportations by nearly 20 percent while delaying plans to act on his own potentially to shield millions of immigrants from expulsion.
The Homeland Security Department is on pace to remove the fewest number of immigrants since 2007, according to an analysis of its data by The Associated Press.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency responsible for deportations, sent home 258,608 immigrants between the start of the budget year last Oct. 1 and July 28 this summer, a decrease of nearly 20 percent from the same period in 2013, when 320,167 people were removed.
Over 10 months in 2012, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 344,624 people, some 25 percent more than this year, according to federal figures obtained by the AP.
Obama announced plans earlier this year to act on his own to slow deportations but now has postponed any changes until after November's elections. The delay is an effort to shield vulnerable Democrats from potential voter ire at his unilateral actions.
The removal figures, contained in weekly internal reports marked "Official Use Only," reflect the marked decline in deportations even as Obama has delayed announcing what changes he will make to U.S. immigration policies.
Immigration advocates widely expect Obama to reduce the number of immigrants who are deported, a particularly sensitive issue in many states. Since Obama took office, his administration has removed more than 2.1 million immigrants.
There are two principal reasons fewer immigrants already are being deported:
—The Obama administration decided as early as summer 2011 to focus its deportation efforts on criminal immigrants or those who posed a threat to national security or public safety. Many others who crossed into the United States illegally or overstayed their visas and could be subject to deportation are stuck in a federal immigration court system. Last month the backlog in that system exceeded 400,000 cases for the first time, according to court data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. For each case, it now takes several years for a judge to issue a final order to leave the U.S.
—As Border Patrol agents detain more people from countries in Central America, not Mexico, the volume and circumstances of the cases take more time for overwhelmed immigration officials and courts to process because, among other reasons, the U.S. must fly such immigrants home rather than letting them walk back across the border into Mexico. A surge in the number of immigrant families, mostly women and young children, has swamped temporary holding facilities, leading the Homeland Security Department to release many people into the U.S. interior with instructions to report back to authorities later.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the decrease reflected the president's decision to shift resources from the interior of the country to the border to address the surge in unaccompanied minors arriving on the border.
"The shifting of those resources may have something to do with those numbers," Earnest said, adding that law enforcement officials make deportation decisions independent of the White House. The White House began shifting resources as early as May, although the decline in deportations began years ago.
Under U.S. law, immigrant children from Central America caught crossing the border alone can't be subjected to speedy removal proceedings without appearing before a judge. The government interviews Mexican and Canadian children to make sure they aren't trafficking victims; then they can be sent home quickly.
The administration instructed immigration officials starting in summer 2011 to prioritize deportation cases involving criminal immigrants. Deportations had been increasing since late 2008, but since that summer the overall number has dropped markedly.
It remains unclear exactly what actions Obama will announce after the elections. He said earlier this month the U.S. would be better off if immigrants — who in some cases, he said, have been in the U.S. for longer than 10 years and have American children — "have a path to get legal by paying taxes and getting aboveboard, paying a fine, learning English if they have to."
But there are limits under U.S. law to actions that Obama could take without approval from Congress. He can't generally give large groups of immigrants blanket permission to remain permanently in the United States, and he can't grant them American citizenship. He almost certainly could delay indefinitely efforts to deport immigrants already in the U.S. illegally, and he could give them official work permits that would allow them to legally find jobs, obtain driver's licenses and file tax returns.
The president said this month that a partisan fight in July over how to address a surge in the number of immigrant children caught crossing the border had created the impression that there was a crisis — and a volatile climate for taking the measures he had promised.
As of early September, only 319 of more than 59,000 immigrants who were caught traveling with their families have been returned to Central America.
Follow Alicia A. Caldwell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/acaldwellap