Immigrant removals continue to decline under Obama

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WASHINGTON (AP) - The Obama administration is on pace to deport the fewest number of immigrants in nearly a decade, according to internal government data obtained by The Associated Press.

As of April 20, federal immigration officials sent home 127,378 people in the United States illegally. That puts immigrant removals on track to be among the lowest since the middle of President George W. Bush's second term.

The internal statistics reveal a continuing decline in deportations even as the Obama administration fights a legal challenge to a plan it announced late last year to shield millions of immigrants from deportations.

"With the resources we have ... I'm interested in focusing on criminals and recent illegal arrivals at the border," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during an oversight hearing Tuesday.

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Immigrant removals continue to decline under Obama
Demonstrators, led by the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice and the Congress of Day Laborers, participate in a rally outside the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, Friday, April 17, 2015. A three-judge panel began hearing arguments whether to lift a temporary hold imposed by a federal judge in Texas on President Barack Obama's executive action seeking to shield millions of immigrants from deportation. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Ashley Ayesdas, 4, holds a sign as her mother, Guatemalan immigrant Maria Arias, behind at left, participates in a rally led by the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice and the Congress of Day Laborers, outside the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, Friday, April 17, 2015. A three-judge panel began hearing arguments whether to lift a temporary hold imposed by a federal judge in Texas on President Barack Obama's executive action seeking to shield millions of immigrants from deportation. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
In this April 28, 2015, photo, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate Judiciary Committee on oversight of the department. The Obama administration is on pace to deport the fewest number of immigrants in nearly a decade. Federal immigration officials have sent home about 127,000 people as of mid-April. That’s about 19,730 people a month since the government’s fiscal year started in October. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)
President Barack Obama meets with a group of "Dreamers" in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015. The president is accusing opponents of his immigration action of failing to think about the "human consequences." The president spoke during an Oval Office meeting Wednesday with six of young immigrants who would be subject to eventual deportation under a bill passed by the House. The legislation would overturn Obama's executive actions limiting deportations for millions here illegally and giving them the ability to work. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Barack Obama meets with a group of "Dreamers" in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015. The president is accusing opponents of his immigration action of failing to think about the "human consequences." The president spoke during an Oval Office meeting Wednesday with six of young immigrants who would be subject to eventual deportation under a bill passed by the House. The legislation would overturn Obama's executive actions limiting deportations for millions here illegally and giving them the ability to work. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
A woman holds a sign that says in Spanish, "you, me, we are America!" during a rally in support of President Barack Obama’s plan to protect more than 4 million people living illegally in the U.S. from deportation in front of a church Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015, in San Diego. Immigrants expressed disappointment Tuesday after a federal judge put a hold on the president's plan, but many said they haven’t lost hope. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
A woman holds a sign that says in Spanish, "without fear I am America," during a rally in support of President Barack Obama’s plan to protect more than 4 million people living illegally in the U.S. from deportation Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015, in San Diego. Immigrants expressed disappointment Tuesday after a federal judge put a hold on the president's plan, but many said they haven’t lost hope. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a leading advocate in the House for comprehensive immigration reform, center, leads a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, with fellow Democrats on the implementation of President Barack Obama's executive actions to spare millions from immediate deportation. Rep. Al Green, D-Texas is at left. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Ramon Maldonado, right, of Phoenix, leaves an Arizona Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Division office to take his driving test, as many young immigrants protected from deportation under new Obama administration policies begin pursuing Arizona driver's licenses, Monday, Dec. 22, 2014, in Phoenix. Monday is the first day ADOT will start processing driver's license and identification card applications from qualified immigrants. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
In this Sunday, Dec. 14, 2014 photo, Jonathan Perez, 4, holds a dividing yellow tape, while his mother volunteers helping thousands of immigrants attending the Immigration Relief Education forum organized by the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, CHIRLA, at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The event looks to educate immigrants on President Obama’s Executive Action announcement expected to prevent the deportation of more than 4 million immigrant families. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
This Dec. 10, 2014 photo shows Tony Bernabe posts a flier in downtown Los Angeles advertising a massive information session scheduled for this weekend to tell immigrants more about President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Immigrant advocates have been holding workshops in churches, schools and meeting rooms across the country to dispel rumors, ward off fraud and help immigrants here illegally determine if they qualify to apply for a work permit and protection from deportation. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Antonia Alvarez looks to President Barack Obama as he speaks about immigration at Del Sol High School, in Las Vegas, Friday, Nov. 21, 2014. The president unveiled expansive executive actions on immigration Thursday night to spare nearly 5 million people in the U.S. illegally from deportation, setting off a fierce fight with Republicans over the limits of presidential powers. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama speaks about immigration at Del Sol High School, in Las Vegas, Friday, Nov. 21, 2014. The president unveiled expansive executive actions on immigration Thursday night to spare nearly 5 million people in the U.S. illegally from deportation, setting off a fierce fight with Republicans over the limits of presidential powers. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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The new figures, contained in weekly internal reports not publicly reported, average about 19,730 removals a month for the first six months of the government's fiscal year that began in October.

If that trend continues, the government will remove about 236,000 by September - the lowest figure since 2006, when 207,776 were sent home.

Removals have been declining for nearly three years after Immigration and Customs Enforcement recorded a record 409,849 removals in 2012. That federal agency, known as ICE, is responsible for finding and removing immigrants living in the country illegally.

President Barack Obama announced a plan in November that would protect millions of immigrants living in the country illegally, but that effort is on hold after a federal judge in Texas blocked its implementation.

Meanwhile, the Homeland Security Department has continued to slow removals, and a program launched in 2012 to protect young immigrants from deportation remains in place.

Johnson has directed immigration authorities anew to focus on finding and deporting immigrants who pose a national security or public safety threat, those who have serious criminal records and those who have recently crossed the Mexican border. Roughly 11 million immigrants are thought to be living in the country illegally.

Johnson confirmed Tuesday that removals have decreased but did not provide the committee with specific numbers. He said a variety of factors, including a corresponding drop in arrests of immigrants caught crossing the border, have led to the drop.

Last week, Johnson said the Border Patrol had arrested about 151,800 people trying to cross the Mexican border illegally, the fewest number of people caught at the border during the same period over the last four years.

"There's lower intake, lower apprehensions," Johnson said Tuesday. "There are fewer people attempting to cross the southern border, and there are fewer people apprehended."

Since Obama first took office in 2009, the number of immigrants arrested and deported from the interior of the country has steadily declined. That year, nearly two thirds of the 389,834 immigrants removed were found in the interior of the country. By 2014, roughly a third of the 315,943 people removed were living in the country, according to internal ICE figures.

As deportations have slowed in recent years, Homeland Security officials have repeatedly attributed the drop to the changing demographic of border crossers. A 2014 analysis of government data by the AP found that the Obama administration had quietly slowed removals by about 20 percent.

The change in deportations has included increased numbers of immigrants from countries other than Mexico, including a flood of tens of thousands of children and families, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. ICE shifted a variety of resources to the border, including deploying agents to quickly opened family detention centers.

Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, called Johnson's explanation of moving resources to the border "a red herring."

"It's clear to me that the department no longer seems to have a will to enforce immigration laws," Grassley said.

The number of children caught traveling alone has dropped by about 45 percent compared to the same time last year, while the arrests of families have declined about 30 percent.

Johnson said again Tuesday that those changes make it more difficult for ICE officials to quickly remove people.

"They are increasingly from noncontiguous countries, and the process of a removal of someone from a noncontiguous country is more time-consuming," Johnson said. "You see greater claims for humanitarian relief, for asylum, and so it's not as simple as just sending somebody back across the border."

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