WASHINGTON, Dec. 23, 2015 - Deportations of illegal immigrants fell sharply in fiscal 2015 reflecting a sharp decline in illegal border crossings as well as the Obama administration’s shift in enforcement priorities away from targeting U.S. employers.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported removing or returning 235,413 individuals in fiscal 2015, down from 315,943 in fiscal 2014 and 368,644 in 2013. 

Some 69,478 of the apprehensions were conducted inside the country, away from the border, and 91 percent of those were of individuals who were previously convicted of a crime. That’s up from 86 percent in 2014 and 67 percent in 2011.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the drop in removals was in line with the department’s decision to prioritize “convicted criminals and threats to public safety, border security and national security." Another key factor, he said, was the “dramatic decrease” in border arrests to the lowest level since 1972. 

Some agriculture officials say the shift in enforcement emphasis has resulted in less targeting of farms for enforcement actions.

But House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said the numbers show the administration is refusing to enforce the law, and he said there are signs that border crossings are on the rise. 

“Recent statistics from the Border Patrol indicate we are once again experiencing a surge of unaccompanied alien minors and family units crossing our southwest border,”  Goodlatte said.

“Collectively, the president’s refusal to enforce our laws makes our communities less safe and undermines the American people’s trust in his ability to preserve the integrity of our immigration system.”

Border Patrol apprehensions of Mexican citizens fell by 18 percent in fiscal 2015, which ended Sept. 30, and arrests of individuals from Central American countries and others. plummeted 68 percent.

Johnson warned that ICE will be “challenged again” in fiscal 2016 “by a variety of factors driving illegal migration to the U.S., mostly from Central America, and we are redoubling our border security efforts now to meet that challenge.” 

Of the 235,000 people that ICE apprehended in fiscal 2015, 165,935 were caught while crossing the border or shortly afterward. The other 69,479 were arrested inside the country and most were convicted criminals, according to ICE.

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ICE also said that its effort to target illegal immigrants who are public security threats has been hindered by the refusal of state and local authorities to cooperate with enforcement efforts. 

“When law enforcement agencies decline to transfer custody of removable convicted criminals and public safety threats to ICE, the agency must expend additional resources to locate and arrest these individuals at-large,” the agency said.