Deportations in the South have increased by more than 300 percent -- and even 500 percent in some areas -- since fiscal year 2005, a pace much faster than the national average.
Nationwide, the number of people deported reached almost 400,000 this fiscal year, the largest number in history, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The fiscal year ended Sept. 30.
In the area that includes Tennessee and Alabama, deportations increased from 3,480 in fiscal year 2005 to 15,363 in 2011.
In the area that covers neighboring Georgia, the increase was even more dramatic, from 4,129 deportations in 2005 to 22,963 in 2011, ICE data shows.
Starting with a low base figure makes the percentage increase look impressive, said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Reform, a national group that seeks to stop illegal immigration, among other things.
"The concentration of the illegal population in the United States has shifted in recent years. It used to be concentrated in a few areas of the country like California, Texas," he said. "Now it has become more of a nationwide phenomenon, so you have this reality that you have more illegal immigrants living in more different places than you ever had before."
The record number of deportations since President Barack Obama took office three years ago has drawn criticism from both sides of the debate.
Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said deportations are not the solution to illegal immigration.
"The numbers indicate that people are being deported for minor violations, if anything at all," he said. "When politicians say the border isn't secure and that the federal government isn't doing enough, I think they are being disingenuous with the debate."
The Federation for American Reform argues that the numbers released by the Obama administration are inflated because they include people who were caught at the border. Those numbers weren't included before, according to Mehlman.
And those who are getting deported are primarily people with criminal backgrounds, creating an incentive for people to continue coming to the United States as long as they don't get into trouble, he said.
"What you are seeing on the part of the administration is an effort to convince the American public that they are really serious in enforcing immigration laws and they've pretty much decided that they are going to deport criminals at the exclusion of everyone else," he said.
"Nobody objects to them prioritizing criminals, but every law enforcement agency sets priorities on going after the baddest of the baddest and still manages to enforce laws generally," he added.
The Obama administration announced it was going to review 300,000 cases now under deportation proceedings to focus its efforts on illegal immigrants who are violent criminals or repeat immigration law offenders.
"What the administration needs to do is to make it very clear to people that, even if you get to the United States illegally, you are not going to benefit, you are not going to be able to get a job because employers are going to be wary of ICE, that they are going to be coming after them.
"What we need to do is remove the incentives to people to come here illegally," Mehlman said.
Groups that work with immigrant communities said the increase in deportations is evident.
America Gruner, president of Dalton's Coalition of Latino Elected Officials, said the deportation tactics continue to affect working families that don't pose a danger to the community.
Megan Macaraeg, organizing director with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said the group saw a significant increase in deportations starting in 2007.
Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials
"We've seen whole areas of communities emptying out," she added.
ICE has no breakdowns of deportations by state, only by area of responsibility.
However, Macaraeg said two main factors are contributing to increased deportations in Tennessee. When the state stopped issuing driving certificates for people not authorized to be in the country in 2007, immigrants began to drive without a license.
And the implementation of programs such as 287 (g) and Secure Communities increase the participation of local law enforcement agencies in determining the legal status of those booked into jails, increasing their chances of being deported.
Both programs are partnerships with ICE to determine the legal status of those booked in local jails. Of the 95 counties in Tennessee, 22 percent are using Secure Communities, including Hamilton County.
In Georgia, it's 27 percent -- 43 of 159 counties -- using the program that allows the sharing of fingerprints to be checked against immigration databases. The Whitfield County Sheriff's Office uses both Secure Communities and 287 (g).
But Capt. Wes Lynch, who is in charge of the 287 (g) program in Whitfield, said the sheriff's office has processed fewer individuals for deportation this year than last.
"This may be because there has been less arrests in the county area by all agencies since we have seen a decrease in crime and arrests since we have initiated the 287(g) program," he said in an email. "It may also be that many of the aliens that we are currently encountering have some sort of legal status as opposed to past years."
Still, Gonzalez calls for immigration reform at the federal level.
"How many years is it going to take if President Obama deported a record number of 400,000 undocumented immigrants this fiscal year?" he asked. "How many years is it going to take in enforcing existing laws to deport 10 to 12 million under the same premise?"
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...