The number of immigrants jailed for deportation in New England plunged last year, despite federal immigration officials' expansion of a controversial program designed to catch illegal immigrants.
While jailings nationally dipped less than 8 percent, federal officials said that in New England they dropped almost 28 percent. A total of 3,644 immigrants were jailed last fiscal year in this region, down from 5,042 the year before.
Federal officials say the figures here and nationwide reflect an effort to focus specifically on deporting recent border crossers and immigrants with criminal records, a narrower subset of the illegal immigrant population.
Advocates for immigrants hailed the shift and are pressing officials to release even more immigrants from jail. But others say that the shift is perplexing because the federal government dramatically expanded the Secure Communities fingerprinting program last year in New England, increasing its ability to detect immigrants here illegally. Some say the expansion was expected to lead to more jailings, not fewer.
One theory is that in New England, and especially in Massachusetts, immigration officials are under pressure to lessen enforcement. "You're seeing less enforcement and that's part of the problem," said Bristol County Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson, who has seen the number of immigrant detainees at his North Dartmouth jail decline from 200 a day to as low as 150 a day. "We've become kind of a sanctuary state."
Enforcement is expected to be a major sticking point next year if Congress takes another crack at overhauling the nation's immigration laws. President Obama favors a path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants here illegally, including about 160,000 in Massachusetts, according to the Pew Research Center. But critics say failing to enforce immigration law across the United States, and not just on the border, could endanger support for any legislation.
A senior Obama administration official said on Friday that federal officials are enforcing the law, but in a targeted way that ensures that the most serious offenders are deported. Last fiscal year, federal officials deported 368,644 people, a 10 percent drop from the previous year, but 59 percent of those deported had a criminal record, an increase from prior years.
Some 82 percent of those deported from interior states such as Massachusetts had been convicted of a crime. "We've been very clear since 2009 that our focus was going to be on border security and public safety," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Others cautioned that there are other possible explanations for the drop in detentions in New England. Some immigrants may have been moved from Massachusetts and other states to larger immigration jails in Texas or Georgia before being deported. Others might still be facing deportation even if they are not in jail.
And thousands of immigrants are in the midst of deportation proceedings in Boston's immigration court, which is so clogged that some judges are scheduling deportation hearings into 2018.
"It seems that immigration court is busier than ever," said Matthew J. Maiona, a Boston immigration lawyer.
Because the federal immigration system is largely secret, it is impossible to identify the immigrants who were deported, track their court cases, or verify their criminal history.
Advocates for immigrants also remained skeptical of the administration's detention and deportation figures, and have continued to call for the release of even more immigrant detainees. They say the continued deportations are separating parents from their US-born children and creating unnecessary fear as Congress works toward a possible solution for those here illegally. In recent weeks, activists have blockaded immigration jails in New Jersey, California, and Virginia in an attempt to halt deportations. In Massachusetts this year, detainees staged a hunger strike at the Suffolk County jail, which contracts with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house detainees.
"No one who's undocumented should be put in prison like that. That's crazy," said Peter Lowber, a member of the steering committee of the New Sanctuary Movement, a group in Greater Boston that advocates for immigrants and has rallied at Suffolk. "I'm glad the numbers are down. It's outrageous."
But others said the latest statistics suggest that enforcement is weak. "Enforcement is right now about as bare bones as it can get," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based organization that favors tougher limits on immigration. "It's a problem for communities because that's more people who are going to keep trying to come here illegally and settle here illegally. It's more job opportunities lost for Americans and legal immigrants."
She said the decline was especially confusing in Massachusetts, where federal immigration officials expanded the controversial Secure Communities program from Boston to the rest of the state in May 2012. The program automatically checks the fingerprints of everyone arrested by state and local police against immigration databases to identify immigrants subject to deportation.
The Patrick administration opposed the expansion, pointing out that Secure Communities has ensnared many immigrants who have never been convicted of a crime, and Boston's mayor-elect, Martin J. Walsh, has said he would withdraw Boston from the program, if he could. Federal officials have said the program is mandatory.