An undocumented immigrant prepares to board a deportation flight to Guatemala in Mesa, Arizona, in June.

Story highlights

Adminstration officials say they deported a record number of people last year

Critics say Obama deserves little credit, and that deportation numbers are basically flat

Critics have accused the administration of taking steps in the past to inflate deportation numbers

Liberals and conservatives are concerned over current deportation policy

WASHINGTON CNN  — 

A record number of people were deported from the United States last year, federal officials announced Tuesday.

But does the Obama administration deserve all the credit – or blame – for this record? And is it actually as impressive as it sounds?

Critics say no to both questions, and charge the administration with creative accounting.

President Barack Obama himself may have inadvertently added fuel to the fire.

“The statistics are actually a little deceptive,” Obama said last month during a discussion with Hispanic journalists. There has been “a much greater emphasis on criminals than non-criminals.” And “with stronger border enforcement, we’ve been apprehending folks at the borders and sending them back. That is counted as a deportation even though they may have only been held for a day or 48 hours.”

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, noted Obama’s remarks Wednesday, saying he’s “frustrated about the administration’s deceptive marketing tactics in claiming that they have deported more undocumented people than ever before.”

The administration is “playing a double game,” argued Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tighter immigration restrictions. “They’re telling (pro-immigration) advocacy groups that they’re focusing on the worst of the worst” by committing more resources to the most dangerous undocumented immigrants.

“But they’re telling the broader public they’ve achieved record levels of deportations. It’s a clever spin.”

So what are the facts? Nearly 400,000 individuals were removed from the country in fiscal year 2011, which ended September 30, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. ICE Director John Morton trumpeted the news, calling it the result of “smart and effective immigration enforcement” that depends on “setting clear priorities for removal and executing on those priorities.”

The 396,906 figure is indeed a record – but not by much. A total of 392,862 people were deported in 2010 – a difference of little more than 1%, according to ICE. Almost 390,000 people were deported the year before that.

Significantly larger increases in the total number of deportations occurred during George W. Bush’s administration. Fewer than 120,000 people were deported in 2001, when Bush took office.

Analysts say much of the change over the last decade has been due to the implementation of controversial federal-led measures such as Secure Communities initiative and the Criminal Alien Program, which are designed to root out undocumented immigrants accused or convicted of various criminal acts. Both measures predate Obama’s presidency.

Recent state-led crackdowns on illegal immigrants in places like Arizona – despite all the media attention – have played a less critical role, they insist.

“There certainly has been a tremendous uptick in state activity in the realm of immigration enforcement” in recent years, said Greg Chen, director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. But “in terms of what’s driving enforcement, it’s (still) really a federal-led issue.”

Producing new deportation records – however slim the margin – appears to be a priority for the Obama White House. Pundits argue the ability to tout such records could be political gold for a Democratic president wooing independent voters in 2012, though it does risk alienating Obama’s liberal base.

A Washington Post story from last December said administration “officials quietly directed immigration officers to bypass backlogged immigration courts and time-consuming deportation hearings whenever possible” in order to break the record for fiscal year 2010.