Phoenix (AZCentral.com) -- The Obama administration is committed to tough enforcement of the nation's immigration laws and is not "pro-amnesty," the director of the nation's immigration-enforcement agency said Thursday.
The Obama administration removed a record 380,000 people during the past fiscal year and made a priority of deporting illegal immigrants who pose the greatest threat to public safety, said John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Morton was in Phoenix to announce that ICE agents had just completed a three-day sweep in Arizona tracking down illegal immigrants with criminal records. He also defended the agency's track record amid criticism that President Barack Obama's administration has been lax on immigration enforcement and hasn't done enough to secure the border.
Morton said this week's operation in Arizona was the largest ever conducted in the state. It resulted in the arrest of 63 illegal immigrants. At least 25 already have been deported.
The operation took place from Monday to Wednesday in conjunction with the U.S. Marshals Service. Officials fanned out across the state and made arrests in Phoenix, Tucson, Sedona, Mesa, Tempe and Prescott. ICE has launched five similar operations in other parts of the United States, and more are planned.
Of the 63 illegal immigrants arrested, 28 had been convicted of serious crimes, 24 were convicted of less serious crimes and three had been convicted of minor crimes.
Eight were non-criminal fugitives who had been ordered deported but didn't leave or who had been previously deported.
Those arrested were from nine countries: Canada, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Uzbekistan.
The arrests included a 45-year-old Mexican woman convicted for conspiracy to commit wire fraud in a scheme that netted more than $820,000.
A 55-year-old Mexican man convicted of selling meth in 2003 also was arrested and will, for the second time, be prosecuted for re-entering the country illegally. The man was convicted of felony re-entry in 2009.
The operations are part of the Obama administration's strategy of targeting illegal immigrants who pose the biggest threat to public safety, Morton said.
The agency deported 81,429 immigrants from Arizona during the past fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30.
Through Aug. 2 of this fiscal year, ICE removed more than 66,000 illegal immigrants from Arizona, 24,950 of them convicted criminals.
Obama also planned to sign a $600 million bill today to pay for putting more Border Patrol agents and equipment on the border with Mexico.
The bill will fund the hiring of 1,000 new Border Patrol agents to be deployed at critical areas along the border, 250 more ICE agents and 250 more Customs and Border Protection officers.
It also will pay for new communications equipment and greater use of unmanned surveillance drones.
But tough enforcement alone will not solve the nation's problem with illegal immigration, Morton said. He said enforcement must be coupled with comprehensive reforms that include allowing illegal immigrants to earn legal status as long as they agree to pay fines and wait at the back of the line.
"The right answer is a balance of serious, and tough, sensible enforcement with rational bipartisan comprehensive federal immigration reform," Morton said.
Despite the number of removals, the Obama administration has come under fire for being lax on immigration enforcement and not doing enough to secure the southwestern border with Mexico against illegal immigration and drug traffickers.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and other lawmakers have repeatedly cited federal inaction as the reason the state needed its own law requiring local police to question and arrest illegal-immigrant suspects.
At the end of July, some GOP lawmakers also accused the Obama administration of pursuing a "backdoor amnesty" for illegal immigrants after the draft of a government memo surfaced that discussed the possibility of allowing some illegal immigrants to remain in the country without fear of deportation through a program known as "deferred action."
Also in July, the union that represents 7,000 rank-and-file ICE agents and employees announced publicly that the union had unanimously passed a "vote of no confidence" for Morton and ICE detention-policy director Phyllis Coven, saying they had abandoned the agency's core mission of enforcing immigration laws and instead had directed their attention to campaigning for programs and policies related to amnesty, giving illegal immigrants who are now in the country legal status.
During a news conference, Morton bristled at the union's complaint that he and the Obama administration are anti-enforcement and pro-amnesty.
"Neither of which is true," said Morton, a former federal prosecutor. "We don't support amnesty. I don't support amnesty, and we are not anti-enforcement. . . .
"We are about enforcing the laws sensibly within the resources Congress gives us."
ICE has the resources to remove about 400,000 people a year, he said.
The question is, he added: Who should those 400,000 people be?
"From my perspective, it ought to be public safety, getting criminals off the streets, securing our border and making sure we go after people who game the system. Period," Morton said.