The federal government deported nearly 400,000 people nationwide in the recently completed fiscal year - marking the 10th straight record year.
But bucking the national trend, deportations in Arizona dropped for the first time in five years - from 92,600 in 2010 to just less than 52,000 in fiscal 2011, statistics released Tuesday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement show. The fiscal year ended on Sept. 30.
For the first time in at least four years, Arizona did not lead the nation in deportations, said Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Vincent Picard. It's unknown why there was a decrease, he said.
More than half of this year's deportees nationwide - nearly 217,000 - had felony or misdemeanor convictions, setting a 10-year high for the percentage of "criminal" illegal immigrants among total deportations, figures show.
The 396,906 deportations nationwide in fiscal 2011 represent a small increase from the 392,862 formally returned in fiscal 2010, the stats show. Deportations have ratcheted up under the Obama administration, with more than 389,000 deportations each of the past three years.
The 2011 total deportations are more than three times the total deportations made in fiscal 2001, government figures show.
The increase shows the agency is making progress in "smart and effective" immigration enforcement, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said.
"This comes down to focusing our resources as best we can on our priorities," Morton said. "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."
The Obama administration has taken criticism from both sides of the immigration debate for rising deportation levels.
Republican border hawks and critics of the administration's immigration enforcement strategy call the deportation numbers inflated because they include people who voluntarily leave with no penalties and may be able to cross back into the country illegally.
Immigrant rights groups contend the government is unfairly targeting illegal immigrants who are not a menace to society, separating families and creating fear in immigrant communities.
"It's very worrisome because they are not just numbers, but real people and real families being torn apart," said the Rev. Alison Harrington of Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church.
Lumping in deportees who have committed nonviolent crimes with violent crimes in the "criminal" illegal immigrant count is misleading, Harrington said. Some people are deported because of driving without a license or having reentered the United States after deportation, which can be a felony, she said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials could not provide a comprehensive list of the crimes committed by deportees included in the criminal category. They also could not say how many of those crimes related to reentering the U.S. after being deported.
They only provided fiscal 2011 totals for these four categories:
• 1,119 convicted of homicide.
• 5,848 convicted of sexual offenses.
• 55,653 convicted of drug-related crimes.
• 35,927 convicted of driving under the influence.
That leaves 118,151 others in the criminal category with unknown crimes.
Two-thirds of the "noncriminal" illegal immigrants deported were recent illegal border crossers or repeat immigration violators, the agency said.
"The administration and ICE shouldn't be so proud of themselves," said Jennifer Allen, the director of Tucson-based Border Action Network. "Still nearly half of the people that have been taken out of this country have done nothing more than have immigration violations."
The total number of criminal illegal immigrants deported in fiscal 2011 was more than double the fiscal 2007 total and more than three times the the fiscal 2001 total.
The last time criminal illegal immigrants made up such a large portion was in fiscal 2002 when they accounted for 58 percent of the nearly 123,000 deportations. By comparison, only 31 to 35 percent of deportees were "criminals" in fiscal 2007-2009.
The percentage of criminal illegal immigrants in Arizona accounted for half of the total deportations.
More than 90 percent of fiscal 2011's deportations fell under Immigration and Customs Enforcement's priority groups: those who have broken criminal laws; recent border crossers; repeat immigration law violators; and fugitives from immigration court.
The breakdown of the countries of origin of the deportees was not available Tuesday.
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed to this story.