Originally published Saturday, October 22, 2011 at 8:07 AM

Deportations drop in Pacific Northwest

If deportations have declined in the Pacific Northwest, immigration attorney Betsy Tao hasn't noticed.

Associated Press

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If deportations have declined in the Pacific Northwest, immigration attorney Betsy Tao hasn't noticed.

Tao works at the only legal aid office that provides free advice to immigrants being detained at the detention center in Tacoma. She's seen the center expand from 1,000 beds to 1,575, and ever more people channeling through the legal orientation sessions she puts on for the detainees.

"To be honest, we see more and more people every year," Tao said from the Tacoma office of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. "The workload is continuously increasing for us. Years ago, we were able to help fewer people. In part, existing staff has gotten a lot better and quicker at what they do. In spite of that... there's the knowledge we're only reaching a fraction of the people."

Even so, and despite record-setting deportations nationally, the number of immigrants removed from the Pacific Northwest has dropped to its lowest levels in five years.

New figures from the past fiscal year released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement show that 7,607 people were deported from Washington, Oregon and Alaska - a slide of 22 percent from 2010. Moreover, fiscal 2011's figures are a 30 percent drop from 2008 when more than 10,900 people were removed from the area.

The Northwest figures buck the national trend: Nearly 400,000 people were deported last fiscal year around the country, a record for the agency, said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton this past week in Washington D.C.

Local ICE officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but the office said in a statement that the drop in Northwest deportations is due to fewer transfers to the detention center in Tacoma, and because the office has seen an increase in non-detained immigration cases, in which those facing deportation are not incarcerated.

"Generally, it takes considerably longer for the immigration courts to adjudicate non-detained cases, since, for a variety of reasons, detained aliens' cases receive scheduling priority. Depending on the extent to which a case is appealed, it can take several years before a non-detained alien is actually removed," the explanation read.

Nationally, ICE leaders have said that the agency is focusing its resources on criminals, recent border crossers, those who repeatedly cross the border and those people the department considers fugitives.

That goal shows in the Pacific Northwest numbers. Nearly 70 percent of people removed from the three-state jurisdiction in fiscal 2011 were considered convicted criminals by ICE, something the local office said has been consistent with the agency's stated enforcement strategy.

Nationwide, Morton said that about 55 percent of those deported had felony or misdemeanor convictions. Officials said the number of deportees convicted of crimes was up 89 percent from 2008.

Among the 396,906 individuals deported were more than 1,000 convicted of homicide. Another 5,800 were sexual offenders, and about 80,000 people were convicted of drug related crimes or driving under the influence. Last year, the total was roughly 393,000.

The new deportation figures come at a time when the Obama Administration has sought to address critics on both sides of the immigration debate.

Immigration advocates complain law enforcement officials are spending too many scarce resources rounding up families living illegally in the country who otherwise are law-abiding. Others say the administration isn't doing enough to stop the flow of illegal immigration and protect Americans from potential foreign terrorists and other criminals.

Immigration has become a contentious topic among Republican presidential hopefuls, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry trading verbal barbs in the most recent debate. Perry resurrected an old attack on Romney, who had hired a lawn care company that employed illegal immigrants. Romney's camp was quick to point out that Perry signed a bill giving in-state tuition to students who are in the country illegally.

In Oregon, one advocate said immigrant groups have enjoyed success in defeating stricter immigration laws at the state level, communicating know-your-rights campaigns and maintaining open channels with federal immigration authorities.

"I don't think we should read the decline came out of the goodwill of ICE or because they ran out of people to deport, but because of the political pressure on them," said Francisco Lopez, Executive Director of Causa Oregon.

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