An undocumented Guatemalan charged as a criminal prepares to board a deportation flight in Mesa, Arizona, this summer.

Story highlights

Immigration and Customs Enforcement says the numbers show a focus on priority groups

Nearly 55% had been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors, it says

"These year-end totals indicate that we are making progress," Director John Morton says

Washington CNN  — 

Nearly 400,000 people were deported from the United States in the past fiscal year, the largest number in the history of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, the government announced Tuesday.

The year-end removal numbers “underscore the administration’s focus on removing individuals … that fall into priority areas” such as lawbreakers, threats to national security and repeat violators, the agency said in a news release.

Overall in fiscal year 2011, immigration officials said, 396,906 individuals were removed. Of these, 216,698, nearly 55%, had been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors. That’s an 89 percent increase of criminals from three years ago, the enforcement agency said.

“This includes 1,119 aliens convicted of homicide; 5,848 aliens convicted of sexual offenses; 44,653 aliens convicted of drug related crimes; and 35,927 aliens convicted of driving under the influence,” it said.

The percentage was even higher for some regions. In the sector that covers Houston, Beaumont and Corpus Christi, Texas, about 74% of the 20,450 removals were of people with criminal records, said Gregory Palmore of the agency’s Houston office.

“Smart and effective immigration enforcement relies on setting priorities for removal and executing on those priorities,” said agency Director John Morton. “These year-end totals indicate that we are making progress, with more convicted criminals, recent border crossers, egregious immigration law violators and immigration fugitives being removed from the country than ever before. Though we still have work to do, this progress is a testament to the hard work and dedication of thousands of ICE agents, officers and attorneys around the country.”

The government said 90% of the agency’s removals fell into a priority category and more than two-thirds of the other removals in 2011 were either recent border crossers or repeat immigration violators.

The American Civil Liberties Union reacted to the announcement by again criticizing the Obama administration’s emphasis on deportations.

“All told, this administration has deported nearly 1.2 million people, leaving a wake of devastation in Latino communities across the nation,” Joanne Lin, ACLU legislative counsel, said in a news release. “These record-breaking deportation numbers come at a time when illegal immigration rates have plummeted, the undocumented population has decreased substantially and violent crime rates are at their lowest levels in 40 years.”

Lin also said the deportations represent “uncontrolled, unwarranted” spending of taxpayers’ money by the Department of Homeland Security, of which the immigration agency is a part.

The department’s chief, Secretary Janet Napolitano, last week defended the administration’s polices as she gave advance notice that this fiscal year would end with a record number of removals.

“What … critics will ignore is that while the overall number of individuals removed will exceed prior years, the composition of that number will have fundamentally changed,” she said in a speech at American University.

The Department of Homeland Security more than a month ago announced that the government would review about 300,000 deportation cases pending in federal immigration courts. Lower-priority cases – those not involving individuals considered violent or otherwise dangerous – would be suspended under the new criteria.

That change drew criticism from the other side of the immigration issue, with some people who favor more deportations characterizing it as a back-door amnesty program aimed at skirting the nation’s immigration laws.

Napolitano said the approach is a common-sense way to tackle immigration problems with limited resources.

CNN’s Tracy Sabo contributed to this report.