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By Tom Ramstack
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials celebrated but Mexican politicians are fuming after the latest U.S. deportation figures were announced this week.
A record 396,906 illegal immigrants were deported in the fiscal year that ended in September, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported Tuesday. The figures are up by more than 4,000 from a year ago.
"The numbers are quite strong," John Morton, ICE administrator, told the House Judiciary Committee during a hearing.
About 55 percent of the persons deported had been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors. Many of the others crossed the border illegally more than once, ICE officials said.
ICE increasingly seeks to deport convicted criminals and repeat immigration law violators before anyone else, Morton said.
"This comes down to focusing our resources as best we can on our priorities," Morton said.
However, the policy has fallen under harsh criticism from Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
He said ICE's emphasis on deporting illegal immigrants with criminal records to Mexico is adding to violence along the border.
ICE is "deporting up to 80,000 people in a year" to Mexican cities like Ciudad Juarez and Reynosa, where violence from the drug war that started in December 2006 is most intense.
More than 41,000 people have been killed in the war.
Deportations of immigrants with criminal records can be done quickly without prolonged legal processes. Anyone else is entitled to a more formal court hearing.
"In the face of the dilemma of pursuing the legal process in the American courts, which implies costs for the administration of justice in that country, they simply prefer to deport them to border cities, by which the cycle of violence is exacerbated even more," Calderon said during an immigration conference in Mexico City.
He called the deportations of children "truly inhumane and scandalous."
He also criticized newly enacted laws in states like Arizona and Alabama that authorize local police to crack down on illegal immigrants. The laws allow police to question suspected illegal immigrants and arrest them without waiting for federal law enforcement agencies.
Immigration is "a social and economic phenomenon that cannot by avoided by decree," Calderon said.
The Obama administration opposes the state laws but is running into resistance from local political leaders. Federal courts have stepped in to block enforcement of most of the state immigration laws.
Calderon said he would continue searching for a "comprehensive and sensible" way for Central American immigrants to stay in the United States.
An estimated 12 million Mexicans "who went in search of better opportunities for development" live in the United States, Calderon said.
He pledged to continue "fighting side by side with Mexican immigrants" to ensure their rights are respected and there is a "comprehensive, sensible, sympathetic" approach to the problem of migration.
He said the problem is pervasive, touching the lives of many Mexicans with relatives living in the United States.
"I have cousins in America who are in this circumstance," Calderon said. "Margarita (his wife) has a brother who we love and we have not seen for almost 11 years."
Morton also implied an end to illegal immigration is unlikely without significant changes to federal policies.
"We continue to hope for comprehensive immigration reform at a national level, working with the Congress, but in the meantime, we work with the resources we have, under the laws we have."
President Barack Obama has promised to reform immigration policies but has been unable to reach agreement on a strategy with leaders of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
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