WASHINGTON -- As President Barack Obama intensifies his campaign for a broad overhaul of the nation's immigration system, advocates for America's 11 million illegal immigrants are stepping up demands that he stop what has become one of the most aggressive and efficient efforts in decades to deport people who are in the United States unlawfully.
In four years, Mr. Obama's administration has deported twice as many illegal immigrants as the George W. Bush administration did in his two terms, largely by expanding and refining Bush-era programs to find people and send them home. By year's end, deportations under Mr. Obama are on track to reach 2 million, nearly the same number of U.S. deportations from 1892 to 1997.
That effort has helped Mr. Obama lay claim to being tough on illegal immigration, giving him some added credibility with conservatives as he calls for a system overhaul by summer. But it has also caught him between powerful and impassioned political forces at a critical moment in the immigration debate.
Although critics of new immigration laws have long cited lax enforcement as a reason to oppose giving illegal immigrants a way to become legal residents, activists say the deportation policy has become an unfair and indiscriminate dragnet forcing people out of the country at exactly the wrong moment -- when the promise of eventual U.S. citizenship could be right around the corner.
"Enforcing a broken system aggressively right before we're about to change it is not just not compassionate, it's cruel," said Jim Wallis, chief executive of Sojourners, a Christian social action group. "If you are breaking up families because of politics, we're going to speak out against you."
Administration officials insist that the government has worked hard over the past four years to make deporting criminals the top priority, while allowing law enforcement officers more discretion on deciding whom to send home. They say the perception of a huge crackdown is erroneous and misleading.
"We focused on smart, effective enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens, recent border crossers and egregious immigration law violators," Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matthew Chandler said.
But those claims are disputed by immigrant activists, who say many of those being deported have done nothing wrong except to enter the country illegally. Since 2010, the government has deported more than 200,000 parents of children who are U.S. citizens, a recent report found.
"Our communities are being torn apart for minor offenses," said Lorella Praeli, director of advocacy and policy at United We Dream, the largest network of young immigrants in the United States illegally. She pointed to a case last month in Arizona, where the mother of a young immigration activist was detained and put on a bus for deportation before an outcry on social media got her case turned around. "We expect more leadership from the president on this issue."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently said there had been "real improvements" in immigration enforcement efforts, including more border security, and said "it helps a lot" in the fight for immigration legislation this year. Administration officials said that kind of praise might evaporate if deportations suddenly stopped.
In a White House meeting with immigration activists this month, Mr. Obama said a deportation moratorium would go beyond what he could legally do and would undermine the legislative efforts, according to several of those present.
Angela Maria Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, said some activists were being unrealistic. "I'm sympathetic to the feeling that people are hemorrhaging," she said. "But at the end of the day, the real cure comes from Congress."
Officials also say there are legal burdens on the administration. Much of the deportation rise, they say, is the result of huge increases in financing from Congress, with orders to use the money to enforce immigration laws.
Within those constraints, administration officials said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had tried to narrow the department's focus by giving discretion to prosecutors, stopping some raids, shifting officers to the border and looking for illegal immigrants in jails, rather than in communities.
While those efforts have not cut the overall number of deportations, officials argue that the steps have made them fairer.