WASHINGTON — US authorities deported 397,000 undocumented immigrants, of which 210,000 had criminal records in the fiscal year just concluded, the top immigration enforcer told lawmakers Wednesday.

John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), offered the figure at a congressional hearing, which would outpace the records of 390,000 illegals and 195,000 with criminal records in the prior fiscal year.

"The numbers are quite strong," he told the House Judiciary Committee.

Morton said that with "limited resources," his agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, is focusing on "priority" cases -- including those who pose dangers to public safety or who are fugitives from justice.

Also in this category are persons crossing the border from Mexico, in some cases returning after being sent back.

In the face of questions about the administration's toughness on immigration, Morton said ICE had held some 25,000 hearings for businesses suspected of hiring illegals, and had arrested 217 employers along with 15,000 undocumented workers, and had imposed $6 million in fines in the fiscal year ended September 30.

Committee chairman Lamar Smith told the hearing, however, that the administration "doesn't often take enforcement of ICE's immigration laws seriously enough."

He argued that officials "intentionally allowed illegal immigrants to remain in the United States" by using "backdoor amnesty through administrative action even if it can't get congressional approval."

Smith said the claim that ICE is focusing on priority cases is "just a slick way of saying they don't want to enforce immigration laws. ICE has shown little interest in actually deporting illegal immigrants who have not yet been convicted of what they call 'serious' crimes."

Photo credit: Lionel Allorge