Deportations dropped by 10 percent in the 2013 fiscal year, according to data released on Thursday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The agency said that 368,644 people were deported in 2013 compared with 409,847 in the previous year.
The tally marks the first significant abatement in removals since President Obama took office in 2009. Deportations have occurred at a historic pace during his tenure, with roughly 1.8 million sent out of the country.
The president isn’t an immigration hawk in most respects: he wants Congress to pass a bill that would create a pathway to citizenship for many of the 11.7 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. And a program started under his administration allows young undocumented people to live and work in the country legally.
But the skyrocketing deportations under his watch have given resonance to the message that he’s tearing families apart.
Ramon Garibaldo Valdez, a leader with the North Carolina-based United 4 the Dream, is just one of many activists who have hammered Obama on immigration enforcement. He joined other protesters this week in an attempt to shut down an immigration detention center in Ohio.
“We are tired of empty promises for immigration reform,” Valdez said in a statement. “I have lived undocumented in this country for 3 years, and my family is tired of living in fear. If President Obama does not want to shut down the institutions that have terrorized our community for decades, we have to do it ourselves.”
The data released by ICE on Thursday attempts to counter the image of Obama as deporter-in-chief, showing that two-thirds of deportations were of individuals apprehended along the border while trying to illegally enter the U.S.
The message: we’re mostly deporting recent crossers, not people who have been living in communities for long periods of time.
One-third of removals took place in the interior of the country, meaning someone who was not caught while crossing into the U.S.
Speaking with the media on Thursday, ICE’s acting Director John Sandweg stressed that the vast majority of those immigrants apprehended in the interior — 82 percent — had committed a crime.
“We did a better job of identifying serious criminal offenders,” he said. “Those cases take more time.”
Roughly half of the criminal offenders removed from the interior of the county — 48 percent — had committed what ICE considers the most serious crimes, like major drug offenses, rape, murder and kidnapping.
The sizable number of deportations taking place along the border is a result of Border Patrol handing over immigrants to ICE for deportation, Sandweg said.
While deportations have fallen, the average number of people being held in an immigration detention facility on any given day has remained relatively steady.
A spokesperson for ICE said that on average, 34,000 people were held in detention centers each day.
Congress mandates that the agency keep that many beds filled each day, a provision that keeps private immigration jails busy whether it’s needed or not.
And the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has also received criticism for deportation quotas, stemming from 2010 internal documents.
Whether that could change over the remaining years of the Obama administration remains to be seen, but newly appointment DHS Chief Jeh Johnson expressed disagreement with deportations mandates in a December 12 letter to Sen. Dick Durbin’s office.
“I do not believe that deportation quotas or numeric goals are a good idea,” Johnson wrote in the letter, obtained and verified by The Huffington Post. “As I stated above, in my view, immigration enforcement must be focused first on those who pose a threat to our national security, public safety and the integrity of our borders.”