This story was also published in the Washington Post.

For much of this year, the Obama administration touted its tougher-than-ever approach to immigration enforcement, culminating in a record number of deportations.

But in reaching 392,862 deportations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement included more than 19,000 immigrants who exited the previous fiscal year, according to agency statistics. ICE also ran a Mexican repatriation program five weeks longer than ever before, allowing the agency to count at least 6,500 exits that, without the program, would normally have been tallied by the U.S. Border Patrol.

When ICE officials realized in the final weeks of the fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, that the agency still was in jeopardy of falling short of last year’s mark, they scrambled to reach the goal. Officials quietly directed immigration officers to bypass backlogged immigration courts and time-consuming deportation hearings whenever possible, internal emails and interviews show.

Instead, officials told immigration officers to encourage eligible foreign nationals to accept a quick pass to their countries without a negative mark on their immigration record, ICE employees said.

The option, known as voluntary return, may have allowed hundreds of immigrants, who typically would have gone before an immigration judge to contest deportation for offenses such as drunken driving, domestic violence and misdemeanor assault, to leave the country. A voluntary return doesn’t bar a foreigner from applying for legal residence or traveling to the United States in the future.

Once the agency closed the books for the 2010 fiscal year and the record was broken, agents say they were told to stop widely offering the voluntary return option and revert to business as usual.

Without these efforts and the more than 25,000 deportations that came with them, the agency would not have topped last year’s record level of 389,834, current and former ICE employees and officials said.

The Obama administration was intent on doing so even as it came under attack by some Republicans for not being tough enough on immigration enforcement and by some Democrats for failing to deliver on promises of comprehensive immigration reform.

“It’s not unusual for any administration to get the numbers they need by reaching into their bag of tricks to boost figures,” said Neil Clark, who retired as the Seattle field office director in late June, adding that in the 12 years he spent in management he saw the Bush and Clinton administrations do similar things.

But at an Oct. 6 press conference, ICE Director John T. Morton said no unusual practices were used to break the previous year’s mark.

“When the secretary tells you that the numbers are at an all-time high, that’s straight, on the merits, no cooking of the books,” Morton said, referring to his boss, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. “It’s what happened.”

ICE declined to make any officials available for an interview. In selected responses to a series of emailed questions, spokesman Brian P. Hale wrote that the agency did nothing different from previous years, but did not deny that ICE had focused on voluntary returns when it faced a shortfall weeks before the fiscal year ended. Rather, field offices were reminded of the voluntary return option, he said.

“ICE offered eligible aliens… the opportunity to accept voluntary return,” Hale said. “The decision to accept VR [voluntary return] was the aliens’.”

Those efforts did not appear to result in a sharp spike in voluntary returns. Statistics provided by ICE show that voluntary returns peaked at 8,960 in June before dipping and then leveling off in the last two months of the fiscal year. A total of 64,876 immigrants were voluntarily returned to their home countries in 2010.

Chris Crane, president of the American Federation of Government Employees National Council 118, the union that represents ICE immigration agents and officers, said offering voluntary return was not common practice for the agency. The union has been at odds with Morton over what it calls lax enforcement, and gave him a no-confidence vote in June.

“It’s breaking the rules to break the record,” Crane said. “You don’t change the way you do business to meet some quota. Morton said we don’t do quotas. But that’s what this is.”

New accounting

On Oct. 1 — the start of the 2011 fiscal year — Robin F. Baker, an acting ICE assistant director, cheered field directors on to the finish line in an email obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

“We are just 1061 shy of 390,000. However, we still get to count closed cases through Monday, October 4th so…keep having your folks concentrate on closing those cases,” Baker wrote.

Starting in 2009, ICE began to shut its books for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 in the first few days of October. Any deportations that take place in one fiscal year but are confirmed after Oct. 5 date are added to the following fiscal year’s statistics.

Based on the new accounting approach, the agency counted 19,422 removals from 2009 in the 2010 statistics. Another 373,440 people were deported in 2010 itself.

Current and former ICE employees also point to an expanded U.S.-Mexico partnership as another way the agency increased overall deportation numbers.

Known as the Mexican Interior Repatriation Program, the bilateral effort between the U.S. and Mexican governments focuses on reducing deaths of migrants attempting to cross the border during the scorching Arizona summer. Mexicans caught by Border Patrol agents in the Sonoran Desert region and southern Arizona are turned over to ICE agents, who carry out the removals to Mexico.

In a February memo, James M. Chaparro, ICE’s head of enforcement and removal operations, called on field directors to “maximize” participation in the program, which he outlined as one of the ways to increase removals and “move us into position to meet or exceed the fiscal year goals.”

Since launching in 2004, the program had never started earlier than July 7. This year, the first flight full of Mexicans departed June 1. By starting in June, ICE tallied 6,527 returns that in the past would have been handled — and counted —by the U.S. Border Patrol. Overall, a record 23,384 Mexicans between June and September accepted flights back to Mexico City, and then a bus ticket to their hometown at a cost of almost $15 million.

ICE spokesman Hale said the agency started the program early because of available funds and a timely agreement between the U.S. and Mexico. He acknowledged that some of the immigrants removed through the program were caught or detained hundreds of miles from Arizona.

“Select individuals from West Texas were offered an opportunity to volunteer for safe return to their place of origin in the interior of Mexico,” Hale said.

He also confirmed that Mexican nationals detained near Seattle —possibly as many as 500 immigrants, according to one local officer — were also included on the flights.

A year-end scramble

The surge to break the deportation record in the final weeks of the fiscal year consumed the agency, said a high-ranking immigration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

“They had everyone burning the candle at both ends to reach 390,000,” the official said. “They were basically saying anything you can do to increase the overall removal number, that’s what you should do – over everything else.”

  • In the Seattle area, immigration officers were instructed to give the voluntary return option to immigrants who did not face mandatory detention and didn’t have attorneys.
  • In the Atlanta area, ICEofficers were told to persuade immigrants who had already asked to see an immigration judge to instead voluntarily leave the country.
  • In Chicago, officers were told to stop releasing eligible immigrants and monitoring them with electronic ankle bracelets, which might spur more to accept voluntary removals, according to a Sept. 22 email.

“Due to our increase in funding for detention for the remainder of the fiscal year, do not release anyone on an order of recognizance at this time,” James McPeek, an assistant field office director in Chicago, wrote in the email to employees. “Another option is to offer a VR (voluntary return) and keep in custody—this will increase our removal numbers for the fiscal year.”

An ICE employee in Louisiana, who asked to not be named out of fear of reprisal, estimated that over a two-week period at least 100 to 150 Mexican nationals, some of whom had multiple drunken driving convictions, had their court cases re-assigned as voluntary return, which was not common practice. ICE agents elsewhere reported similar numbers.

Several ICE employees said, however, that once the fiscal year ended, their offices reverted to infrequently offering the return option. In the Pacific Northwest, some employees received an email stating just that.

“Effective immediately: do not offer V/Rs (voluntary returns) to aliens who have been convicted of or are pending DUI,” ICE supervisor Elizabeth Godfrey wrote on Oct. 4.

ICE’s goal for 2011 is to remove 404,000 immigrants.

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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.