Employees with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency search Guatemalan immigrants before they are put aboard a deportation flight to Guatemala City on June 24, 2011, in Mesa, Ariz.
Although President Obama supports setting a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants, his administration deported a record 1.5 million of them in his first term.
In addition, the latest data released by the government in recent days show that an unprecedented 409,849 people were deported for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
The increase from the previous year occurred despite policy changes ordered by Obama to reduce the deportations of otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants.
Roughly 55 percent, or more than 225,000 people, deported in the past year were convicted of crimes such as drug offenses and driving under the influence. Immigration officials note that they deported nearly twice as many convicted criminals as in the year before Obama took office. That year, in 2008, criminals made up about a third of all deportations.
The administration says the figures demonstrate that the shift in enforcement to focus on criminals is working.
Priority cases include felons, repeat violators of immigration laws, people who have recently crossed U.S. borders illegally and those who pose a national security threat, the White House says.
But immigrant advocates, including Latino politicians and civil rights groups, criticized the figures as evidence that Obama's policy changes don't sufficiently protect unintended targets.
"This is nothing to be proud of," Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said in a statement. "In the 409,849 deportations are hardened criminals for whom I have no sympathy, but we must also realize that among these ... are parents and breadwinners ... that are assets to American communities and have committed no crimes."
Some 90,000 people in this category are deported every year, Gutierrez estimates.
Gutierrez and others say the best solution remains the passage of comprehensive immigration reform, which could be taken up by the new Congress early next year.
In an announcement that appears to address the criticism, U.S. Immigration and Enforcement Director John Morton has ordered his agents to focus solely on "serious offenders." Agents won't pursue illegal immigrants convicted of one or two minor misdemeanors, such as traffic violations, he said.
The new directive limits the use of "detainers," an enforcement tool that critics say has too often been used to nab people who pose no public safety or national security threat.
From Morton's statement:
"While the FY 2012 removals indicate that we continue to make progress in focusing resources on criminal and priority aliens, with more convicted criminals being removed from the country than ever before, we are constantly looking for ways to ensure that we are doing everything we can to utilize our resources in a way that maximizes public safety."
The biggest change under Obama has been his deferred deportation program, which gives qualified young people brought to the U.S. as children a renewable two-year reprieve. Since the program began in August, applications from more than 355,000 people have been accepted and nearly 103,000 have been approved, according to the latest government figures.