The news that the Obama Administration deported 400,000 undocumented immigrants in the last fiscal year, setting another record, did not come as welcome news to immigration advocates:

The Obama administration might be touting the nearly 400,000 deportations of illegal immigrants last year as evidence that the White House is tough on enforcement and dedicated to reform, but don’t try to convince Rep. Luis Gutierrez.

The Illinois Democrat – perhaps the most vocal immigrant-rights advocate on Capitol Hill – said Tuesday that the record-breaking figure is “nothing to be proud of,” but instead represents “a symptom of our decades-long neglect in fixing the immigration system.”

“We are deporting hundreds of thousands of people who came to the country to work, raise families, contribute to the economy, and want nothing more than to be allowed to live and work here legally,” Gutierrez said in a statement. “Setting a record for deportations and incurring the huge expense of sending so many people away is nothing to be proud of as a country.”

Gutierrez has said to me that the Administration feels that 400,000 deportations comprises something of a quota system, to satisfy a series of contracts to carry out the deportations, authorized by Congress. To tamp down the anger about this in immigrant neighborhoods, the White House claims a focus on criminals, though their definition of criminal activity is so broad, including things like parking tickets or driving without a license, that it’s worth looking at the numbers with suspicion. Indeed, CBS reports that “Officials could not immediately say how many of those crimes related just to previous immigration violations.”

It’s axiomatic that this emphasis on deportation, mostly done through the flawed Secure Communities program, mostly affects Latinos. But now there’s an actual study showing this. And according to the report from the University of California, Berkeley law school and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York:

The report also found that about a third of around 226,000 immigrants who have been deported under the program, known as Secure Communities, had spouses or children who were United States citizens, suggesting a broad impact from those removals on Americans in Latino communities.

The studies find 93% of all those dealt with via Secure Communities are Latinos, despite being only 2/3 of all immigrants. The report also found a small number of immigrants held for no discernible reason, including hundreds of American citizens.

This is why governors across the country have tried to drop Secure Communities, created during the Bush Administraion, and why it led to such outrage earlier this year. Since then, the Administration ordered a deportation review to ensure that only those convicted of serious crimes go through the deportation system. There’s not much data on that shift, which has only been in place for two months, in this report. But Adam Serwer does see some signs.

So here’s an interesting wrinkle in the record deportation numbers the Obama administration announced Tuesday. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement stats show that the administration had 164,245 criminal removals through July 31st. The total number of criminal removals for fiscal year 2011 was 216,698, which means that ICE had 52,353 criminal removals in August and September. That means that nearly a quarter of the total criminal removals for 2011 happened in the last two months.

Why does that matter? If the numbers are correct, then the numbers show that the Obama administration was serious when it announced in August that it would focus immigration enforcement resources on unauthorized immigrants it believes pose a threat to public safety.

There’s still the issue of what is defined as “criminal” under the plan. And there’s supposed to be a full review – the revving up of criminal removals in August and September doesn’t suggest that has taken place. As Gutierrez said, “The announcement cannot be merely a pacifier for those of us crying out for justice and compassion; it must actually stop the deportation of those with deep roots in our country like long-term residents, DREAM Act students, military families, and immediate family of U.S. citizens.” We still don’t really know the outcome, though this sign could be better news.

David Dayen

David Dayen