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Originally published Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 8:42 AM

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Immigrant removals from Northwest keep dropping

The number of illegal immigrants in the Pacific Northwest removed from the country has fallen dramatically over the past couple of years, according to new numbers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Associated Press

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SEATTLE —

The number of illegal immigrants in the Pacific Northwest removed from the country has fallen dramatically over the past couple of years, according to new numbers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

They show that 6,733 immigrants were removed in fiscal year 2012 from Washington, Oregon and Alaska, compared with a recent high of more than 10,800 immigrants expelled in 2010.

The 2012 numbers also show that for the first time in five years, the number of illegal immigrants with criminal records declined. The data show that 4,557 of such immigrants were removed in 2012, compared with 5,272 the previous year.

A fiscal year runs from September to October. These removals also include voluntary departures, which is when an illegal immigrant chooses to leave the country on their own.

In recent years, ICE has made removing illegal immigrants with criminal records one of its top priorities. Nationally, the total number of removals stood at nearly 410,000, with nearly 70 percent of those with criminal records.

The decline of removals from the Pacific Northwest can be attributed to fewer people being transferred from out of state to the Tacoma Detention Center, where some immigrants are processed and held before removal, the agency said in a statement.

The agency also said another factor contributing to the drop in numbers is the increase of immigration cases of people who are not detained at Tacoma. In general, those cases tend to take longer, even years, to work through the immigration court system.

For Rich Stolz, executive director of OneAmerica, a Seattle-based immigrant advocacy group, the drop in local numbers is nothing to cheer about.

"I don't view this as a big victory in the total scheme of things, those numbers appear to have just been moved to other jurisdictions," he said, adding that the more 225,000 immigrants removed without a criminal record nationally "reflects hundreds of thousands of families being torn apart."

Stolz said immigrant advocates continue to be troubled by ICE's definition of crimes counted toward its tally of illegal immigrants with criminal records removed. He said people who commit traffic violations can be caught in the dragnet of programs ICE employs with local jurisdictions, such as one called Secure Communities.

Meanwhile, on the day removal numbers were released, ICE director John Morton announced a new policy on when agents should hold in custody immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally. The policy reinforces ICE's priority of going after people with criminal records and brings its detainment policy in line with prosecutorial guidelines released in 2010.

"The new detainer policy further illustrates the Obama Administration's refusal to enforce immigration law as written by Congress, opting only to enforce the law against aliens deemed a `priority,'" argued the Federal for Immigration Reform, a group that pushes for stricter immigration rules.

Stolz said the new detainment policy is positive step.

"Hopefully, it'll have an impact on the overall numbers of deportations in the future, such as folks pulled over for a broken tail light," he said. "However, the change does not address the fundamental problems created by enlisting local law enforcement in federal immigration enforcement activities, including concerns over racial profiling, undermining trust in law enforcement."

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Manuel Valdes can be reached at http://twitter.com/ByManuelValdes

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