WASHINGTON >> The Obama administration is on pace to deport the fewest number of immigrants in nearly a decade, according to internal government data obtained by The Associated Press.
As of April 20, federal immigration officials sent home 127,378 people in the United States illegally. That puts immigrant removals on track to be among the lowest since the middle of President George W. Bush’s second term.
The internal statistics reveal a continuing decline in deportations even as the Obama administration fights a legal challenge to a plan it announced late last year to shield millions of immigrants from deportations.
"With the resources we have … I’m interested in focusing on criminals and recent illegal arrivals at the border," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during an oversight hearing Tuesday.
The new figures, contained in weekly internal reports not publicly reported, average about 19,730 removals a month for the first six months of the government’s fiscal year that began in October.
If that trend continues, the government will remove about 236,000 by September — the lowest figure since 2006, when 207,776 were sent home.
Removals have been declining for nearly three years after Immigration and Customs Enforcement recorded a record 409,849 removals in 2012. That federal agency, known as ICE, is responsible for finding and removing immigrants living in the country illegally.
President Barack Obama announced a plan in November that would protect millions of immigrants living in the country illegally, but that effort is on hold after a federal judge in Texas blocked its implementation.
Meanwhile, the Homeland Security Department has continued to slow removals, and a program launched in 2012 to protect young immigrants from deportation remains in place.
Johnson has directed immigration authorities anew to focus on finding and deporting immigrants who pose a national security or public safety threat, those who have serious criminal records and those who have recently crossed the Mexican border. Roughly 11 million immigrants are thought to be living in the country illegally.
Johnson confirmed Tuesday that removals have decreased but did not provide the committee with specific numbers. He said a variety of factors, including a corresponding drop in arrests of immigrants caught crossing the border, have led to the drop.
Last week, Johnson said the Border Patrol had arrested about 151,800 people trying to cross the Mexican border illegally, the fewest number of people caught at the border during the same period over the last four years.
"There’s lower intake, lower apprehensions," Johnson said Tuesday. "There are fewer people attempting to cross the southern border, and there are fewer people apprehended."
Since Obama first took office in 2009, the number of immigrants arrested and deported from the interior of the country has steadily declined. That year, nearly two thirds of the 389,834 immigrants removed were found in the interior of the country. By 2014, roughly a third of the 315,943 people removed were living in the country, according to internal ICE figures.
As deportations have slowed in recent years, Homeland Security officials have repeatedly attributed the drop to the changing demographic of border crossers. A 2014 analysis of government data by the AP found that the Obama administration had quietly slowed removals by about 20 percent.
The change in deportations has included increased numbers of immigrants from countries other than Mexico, including a flood of tens of thousands of children and families, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. ICE shifted a variety of resources to the border, including deploying agents to quickly opened family detention centers.
Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, called Johnson’s explanation of moving resources to the border "a red herring."
"It’s clear to me that the department no longer seems to have a will to enforce immigration laws," Grassley said.
The number of children caught traveling alone has dropped by about 45 percent compared to the same time last year, while the arrests of families have declined about 30 percent.
Johnson said again Tuesday that those changes make it more difficult for ICE officials to quickly remove people.
"They are increasingly from noncontiguous countries, and the process of a removal of someone from a noncontiguous country is more time-consuming," Johnson said. "You see greater claims for humanitarian relief, for asylum, and so it’s not as simple as just sending somebody back across the border."