For much of this year, the Obama administration touted its tougher-than-ever approach to immigration enforcement, culminating in a record number of deportations.
But in reaching 392,862 deportations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement included more than 19,000 immigrants who had exited the previous fiscal year, according to agency statistics. ICE also ran a Mexican repatriation program five weeks longer than ever before, allowing the agency to count at least 6,500 exits that, without the program, would normally have been tallied by the U.S. Border Patrol.
When ICE officials realized in the final weeks of the fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, that the agency still was in jeopardy of falling short of last year's mark, it scrambled to reach the goal. Officials quietly directed immigration officers to bypass backlogged immigration courts and time-consuming deportation hearings whenever possible, internal e-mails and interviews show.
Several ICE employees said, however, that once the fiscal year ended, their offices reverted to infrequently offering the return option. In the Pacific Northwest, some employees received an e-mail stating just that:
"Effective immediately: do not offer V/Rs [voluntary returns] to aliens who have been convicted of or are pending DUI," ICE supervisor Elizabeth Godfrey wrote Oct. 4.
The option, known as voluntary return, may have allowed hundreds of immigrants - who typically would have gone before an immigration judge to contest deportation for offenses such as drunken driving, domestic violence and misdemeanor assault - to leave the country. A voluntary return doesn't bar a foreigner from applying for legal residence or traveling to the United States in the future.