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As Congress moves forward with immigration reform, we take a look at how this issue connects to culture, business and families in the Northwest.Our region is home to a unique blend of immigrants who work in all parts of our economy — from high-tech to agriculture. This population already has a deeply-rooted history here. And its ranks are expanding rapidly.Proposals for comprehensive immigration reform address border security, employment verification, guest-worker programs and pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US.

Why Immigrant Deportations Dropped 30 Percent In Northwest

KUOW Photo/Liz Jones

Deportations of unauthorized immigrants in Washington and Oregon dropped 32 percent from 2012 to 2013,according to data from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Yet, people on both sides of the immigration debate find the numbers troubling.

Since President Barack Obama took office, deportations of unauthorized immigrants have continued at record levels, topping out at 409,849 removals in fiscal year 2012. That annual number dropped in 2013 for first time during Obama’s presidency.

Across the country, the number of removals by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement decreased 10 percent last year.

Ann Benson, supervising attorney with Washington Defender Association, said the decrease is a welcome development, “but it isn’t something that should be touted as a victory or an achievement because the high numbers are still so significant and having a significant impact on our communities here in Washington.”

About why deportations in the Northwest dropped more than the national average, Benson said local ICE leadership may be a factor. She said that officials in the Seattle field office have stepped up their discretion to drop or defer cases against low-level offenders. The agency’s stated goal for deportations places priority on serious criminals.

A KUOW review of immigration court backlogs suggests another possible reason for the steeper decline in Northwest removals. In Washington and Oregon courts combined, the average time to process a case increased by about 100 days from 2011 to 2013, according to the nonprofit federal data tracker, Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. That could mean the process – rather than deportations – are slowing down.  

At the national level, ICE officials gave a couple of explanations for the decrease in removals. Last year, the agency deported more convicted criminals and Central Americans who were in the US illegally. ICE officials say those two types of cases just take more time to process. 

The defender association’s Immigration Project, which Benson oversees, offers legal help to immigrants who face deportation.

Nationally, ICE deported 368,644 unauthorized immigrants last year, which Benson said is too many.

“They’re somebody’s mother or somebody’s father or somebody’s son or daughter,” Benson said. “These policies have created a deportation and detention system that’s really destroying families.”

Benson said she is hopeful Congress will pass reforms to curb deportations and offer more immigrants a path to citizenship. A comprehensive immigration reform bill remains stalled in the US Senate, but some Congressional leaders say the issue is still a priority in 2014.

Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors stricter immigration enforcement, said the policy to back off low-level offenders is flawed.

“It sends the message that as long as you don’t commit a serious crime here in the United States there’s virtually no chance that you’re going to be removed simply because you’re in the country illegally,” he said.

Mehlman said the recent drop in deportations shows the Obama administration is not serious about enforcing immigration laws.

In a statement, ICE officials pointed out 60 percent of removals included individuals who were convicted of a criminal offense. 

“The fiscal year 2013 numbers make clear that we are enforcing our nation's laws in a smart and effective way, meeting our enforcement priorities by focusing on convicted criminals,” said John Sandweg, acting director of ICE.

Year started with KUOW: 2006