The Obama administration hit another record high in the number of deportations – nearly 410,000 in the past year, immigration officials announced Friday.

The officials framed the record rate – a point of contention among immigration advocates, including many Latino civil rights groups – as proof of its “focus on removing from the country convicted criminals and other individuals that fall into priority areas for enforcement.”

About 55 percent, or 225,390 people deported, were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors, about twice that number of people in such categories deported in fiscal year 2008, which runs from October to September.

“While the FY 2012 removals indicate that we continue to make progress in focusing resources on criminal and priority aliens,” said John Morton, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “with more convicted criminals being removed from the country than ever before, we are constantly looking for ways to ensure that we are doing everything we can to utilize our resources in a way that maximizes public safety."

In reality, these numbers reflect the urgency with which our government needs to create a better immigration process. Instead of spending our limited resources on deportations, we need laws that strengthen our families, our communities and our economy.

- Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum

ICE includes as “priority” cases people who have been convicted of felonies, national security threats, people who have recently crossed into the U.S. border illegally and repeat violators of immigration law.

The ICE announcement said that the people deported in fiscal year 2012 included 1,215 who were convicted of homicide, 5,557 of sexual offenses, 40,448 of crimes involving drugs, and 36,166 of driving under the influence.

Critics of the more aggressive approach to deportation under President Obama quickly assailed the new record.

GOP presidential challenger Mitt Romney received less than 30 percent of the Latino vote, while Obama received slightly more than 70 percent. Romney's poor showing among Latino voters was widely blamed on his hard-line views on immigration, and refusal to support proposals that would offer certain undocumented immigrants a chance to legalize their status.

Obama campaigned in 2008 on the promise that he would fight for comprehensive immigration reform, which would include tighter enforcement but also a pathway to legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants. But many Latinos and immigration advocacy groups said Obama did not push for reform enough, and instead presided over aggressive enforcement, including record deportation rates.

“Unfortunately, the Department of Homeland Security surpassed its own record high bar for deportations in the last fiscal year,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington D.C.-based group that favors more lenient immigration policies. “That’s a dubious accomplishment.”

“In reality, these numbers reflect the urgency with which our government needs to create a better immigration process,” Noorani said. “Instead of spending our limited resources on deportations, we need laws that strengthen our families, our communities and our economy. Leaders from across the political spectrum are urging Congress to take action, and these numbers highlight the desperate need for change.”

Also on Friday, Morton said that the agency will be limiting the use of a controversial enforcement tool – called a detainer – to immigrants who are arrested for crimes and violations that come under its priorities.

Morton said detainers will be used more on serious offenders, and less on people “arrested for minor misdemeanor offenses such as traffic offenses and other petty crimes,” according to a written announcement by ICE.

Critics of the detainer program, often used as part of Secure Communities and 287G, have said that it tends to ensnare people who are not a danger to their communities or to national security.

The Secure Communities program checks the immigration status of people who are arrested for any crime, and federal immigration officials have insisted local police agencies must honor all requests for detentions.

Secure Communities program was launched in 2008 with the objective, officials said at the time, of catching the worst criminal offenders. But many state and local officials around the country complained that many people detained as part of Secure Communities had not been associated with a serious crimes.

ICE added that it was going to stop some agreements under the 287G program, in which local and state law enforcement authorities are deputized to enforce immigration laws. The agency is phasing it out and replacing Secure Communities.

The National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which advocates for more lenient immigration policies, released a statement saying:  “There is broad consensus that the criminalization of immigrants driven by ICE has led to a deep, nationwide human rights crisis. The fact that 409,000 families were separated this year should be evidence enough for the need to end programs like Secure Communities altogether."

Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at elizabeth.llorente@foxnewslatino.com

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