Immigration 2011: Deportation, 'Administrative Amnesty,' Harsh State Laws

Record deportations, "administrative amnesty," and harsh state laws marked 2011's immigration policy.

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Another year, another political can kicked down the road.

An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants still live in the United States, and this year Congress kept up its decades-long trend of neglecting to pass any meaningful reform.

It doesn't break evenly by party, but Democrats typically pursue what they call "comprehensive immigration reform," which would include enforcement, a guest worker program, and a path to legalization for illegal immigrants. Republicans have typically said they won't think of any other policy until the U.S.-Mexico border is completely secure.

Immigration policy has been primarily enforcement-based since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and though the Obama administration has tried to focus that enforcement on dangerous criminals, 2011 followed the same trend.

Here is a look back at key stories in immigration policy this year:

[Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons on immigration.]

Obama's Record Deportations / Prosecutorial Discretion

President Obama's policy in 2011 has him stuck between a rock and a hard place politically, criticized by both sides of the immigration debate.

In October, the Obama administration announced it had deported a record of nearly 400,000 individuals in fiscal year 2011. And about 55 percent of those were convicted felons, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

[Read: DHS task force puts ICE's 'Secure Communities' at risk.]

Meanwhile, in June, ICE Director John Morton released a memo asking agents to exercise "prosecutorial discretion" on immigration cases to determine whether or not each case fits with the administration's goals of prioritizing deportation of illegal immigrants who are criminals or national security risks. Agents were asked to consider a range of factors in deciding if they should drop a case, including family issues, age, ties to the community, and more.

In November, the administration announced it would review the backlog of deportation cases to dismiss those involving people who would have received prosecutorial discretion.

Some in the immigrant rights community praised the review as a good start, but are hesitant to give it the full thumbs up quite yet. "We hope that that's being used to the benefit of a lot of people," says Christy Fujio, director of asylum programs for Physicians for Human Rights. "But we still hear stories about families being ripped apart, and people being put in immigration detention and eventually being deported for really minor infractions."

Others are frustrated with what they see as Obama playing both sides of the fence. "This administration is trying to be tough on enforcement and be a strong campaign for immigration reform," explains Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant-rights group. "At the end of the day, Obama is not going to get the credit of hard-line restrictionists for record deportations," Noorani says. "He's only going to get the grief from the families that have been destroyed."

Critics on the other side of the debate question the administration's motives for upping deportations since Obama has been clear he wants reform to include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

"I believe that's just another part of the political rhetoric in trying to say that: We are strong on immigration enforcement," says Jessica Zuckerman, a research assistant for the conservative Heritage Foundation. But, she adds, the administration may at the same time be "trying to put forward these amnesty proposals and use [deportations] as fuel."

And in fact, Republicans in Congress, many of whom have opposed a path to citizenship, called prosecutorial discretion "administrative amnesty" and an end-run around Congress.

The House Judiciary Committee recently subpoenaed the Department of Homeland Security for data on individuals who were flagged by ICE but were not placed in deportation proceedings—a way to assess whether any immigrants let go went on to commit more crimes.

[Read Rep. Lofgren: DHS subpoena would return info on legal residents, citizens.]