Washington (CNN) -- The U.S. government expects to deport a record number of people this year, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Wednesday.
She defended the administration's policies, noting that immigration officials are focusing on deporting convicted criminals.
"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. "It will consist of more convicted criminals, recent border-crossers, egregious immigration law violators and immigration fugitives than ever before."
Last year Immigration and Customs Enforcement also deported a record number of people. More than 195,000 of them were convicted criminals, totaling more than 50% of the immigrants deported that year, Napolitano said.
"This year, I expect removals will again be at historic levels," she said.
The record deportations have come under fire from critics, who argue that officials are splitting up families and need to do more to reform the nation's immigration system.
Napolitano said Wednesday that the Obama administration has pushed for Congress to take up immigration reform.
"We know the immigration system needs to be updated. ... But Congress hasn't acted and states continue to pass a patchwork of their own laws in an attempt to fill the void," she said.
The homeland security secretary also defended the federal "Secure Communities" program, which aims to catch and deport illegal immigrants with criminal histories.
Federal officials have praised the program, arguing that it allows authorities to catch criminals who could fall through the cracks.
Critics of Secure Communities, including several state governors, have argued that is not the case.
In June, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said his state was pulling out of the program because of concerns about "its impact on families, immigrant communities and law enforcement in New York." Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick followed suit several days later. And Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn also has said his state was withdrawing from the program.
"Despite the misleading commentary about this program, it has proven to be the single best tool at focusing our immigration enforcement resources on criminals and egregious immigration law violators," Napolitano said Wednesday. "Termination of this program would do nothing to decrease the amount of enforcement. It would only weaken public safety, and move the immigration enforcement system back towards the ad hoc approach where non-criminal aliens are more likely to be removed than criminals."
Napolitano's speech comes more than a month after the Department of Homeland Security 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.
"It makes sense to prioritize our finite resources on removing a Mexican citizen who is wanted for murder in his home country ahead of a Mexican national who is the sole provider for his American citizen spouse. It makes sense to remove a Costa Rican man convicted of sexual assault against a minor before we spend the time and money to send a mother back to her violent and abusive husband in Jamaica, separating her from her American-born children," Napolitano said Wednesday.
Such cases are recent examples of the use of "discretion," Napolitano said -- an idea some critics have characterized 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, not an amnesty program.
"There has never been, nor will there be in these tight fiscal times, sufficient resources to remove all of those unlawfully in the country," she said. "That is why it is so important to set clear priorities."