Federal authorities have repeatedly said their priority is to find and remove illegal immigrants with violent criminal histories, but the U.S. government’s stepped up enforcement in recent years has led to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants convicted of nonviolent crimes, according to a new study.

Nearly three-quarters of the roughly 897,000 immigrants deported from 1997 to 2007 after serving criminal sentences were convicted of nonviolent offenses and one-fifth were legal permanent residents, according to the study released today by Human Rights Watch.

“This explodes the myth that immigrants deported for crimes are invariably people here illegally who committed serious, violent crimes,” said David Fathi, director of the New York-based advocacy group’s U.S. program. “We know now the large majority are being deported for nonviolent, often quite minor crimes.”

The report comes at a time when President Obama has said he will push for immigration reforms and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has begun reviewing enforcement policies.

The deportations cited in the report occurred after the passage of a 1996 law that mandated the detention and deportation of all immigrants, even those who are longtime lawful residents, if they committed a crime punishable by at least one year behind bars.

The law is retroactive, so immigrants are often deported because of crimes they committed before the law was written.

The top reasons for deportation during the 10-year period were entering the U.S. illegally, driving while under the influence of alcohol, assault and immigration crimes, such as selling false citizenship papers, the report said.

The study is based on data obtained from the U.S. government through the Freedom of Information Act.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Lori Haley said the agency was responsible for enforcing the laws enacted by Congress and carrying out court-ordered deportation orders. The majority of criminal immigrants targeted were identified while in the nation’s jails or prisons, she said.

“Promoting public safety is part of ICE’s core mission,” Haley said. “Removing these individuals from our communities and from our country reduces a significant safety vulnerability.”

The report said 28% of those deported on criminal grounds were convicted of violent or potentially violent offenses, such as robbery and kidnapping.

Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which favors stricter controls on immigration, said illegal immigrants had no right to be here and should be removed regardless of their criminal records.

“They don’t need to have committed a crime at all,” he said. “They still should be deported.”

The Human Rights Watch report estimates the deportations have caused the separation of more than 1 million family members.

Yakara Hernandez of Tampa, Fla., said she and her husband understood that he came to the U.S. illegally and were willing to pay the penalty. Hernandez said they owned a business and a home, paid taxes and were raising three daughters.

But she said the family’s life had been on hold since immigration officials deported her husband to Honduras in December 2006.

Hector Hernandez had a drunken driving conviction and had been deported once before. He was arrested at the Port of Tampa and flown to his native country after spending two months in immigration jail.

“My life has been thrown into pause since 2006,” she said. “I can’t plan for the future.”

Leticia Benitez, who lives in Azusa, said her family had also been divided by deportation. Benitez’s husband, a legal permanent resident, was arrested in 2007 and deported to Mexico based on an old misdemeanor conviction for statutory rape.

“That was a mistake he did when he was a teenager,” said Benitez, a U.S. citizen. “He shouldn’t be punished for that.”

His lawyer, Mario Acosta Jr., said Tuesday that the U.S. government had agreed that the crime should not have resulted in a deportation and that the case would return to appellate court. Benitez said she and the couple’s two U.S.-born daughters were praying for his return.

The biggest problem with the 1996 law is that it didn’t give judges enough discretion to consider family and community ties, said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Immigrants are punished twice for their crimes, she said.

“Not only are they dealing with whatever the mistake was in the criminal justice system, then they have to deal with the immigration consequences,” she said.

Human Rights Watch recommended that Obama and Congress amend the law to allow legal permanent residents facing deportation to ask a judge for permission to stay in the country if their crimes were minor and their family connections strong.

The report also calls on immigration authorities to focus their deportation efforts on undocumented immigrants convicted of violent crimes.

But Rachel E. Rosenbloom, supervising attorney with Boston College’s Post-Deportation Human Rights Project, said she expected the deportation of criminal offenders would be the last piece of any reform legislation.

“There are a lot of issues that need to be fixed in our immigration laws,” Rosenbloom said. “This is one of them, but it’s not in the limelight.”

Andrew Becker is a CIR staff reporter. Anna Gorman is a Los Angeles Times staff writer.

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Andrew Becker is a reporter for Reveal, covering border, national and homeland security issues, as well as weapons and gun trafficking. He has focused on waste, fraud and abuse – with stories ranging from border corruption to the expanding use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, from the militarization of police to the intersection of politics and policy related to immigration, from terrorism to drug trafficking. Becker's reporting has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and on National Public Radio and PBS/FRONTLINE, among others. He received a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. Becker is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.