WASHINGTON — The United States expelled a record 1,119 convicted murderers over the past year and for the first time more than half of almost 400,000 deportees were criminals, officials said Tuesday.

President Barack Obama's administration has prioritized the deportation of foreign convicted criminals in an attempt, it says, to apply immigration laws in a more humane way while waiting for broad immigration reform.

Obama has called for a comprehensive overhaul that would include strengthening borders, but also granting a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

Figures released Tuesday by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) showed that the Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations removed a record 396,906 illegal aliens in 2010-2011.

"Of these, nearly 55 percent or 216,698 of the people removed were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors -- an 89 percent increase in the removal of criminals since FY (Fiscal Year) 2008," ICE said.

As well as 1,119 deportees convicted of homicide, almost 6,000 had been found guilty of sexual offenses and almost 45,000 of drug related crimes. Most crimes were committed in the United States.

The figures compared with 390,000 total deportations last year, including 195,000 convicted criminals.

"Smart and effective immigration enforcement relies on setting priorities for removal and executing on those priorities," ICE director John Morton said.

"These year-end totals indicate that we are making progress, with more convicted criminals, recent border-crossers, egregious immigration law violators and immigration fugitives being removed from the country than ever before."

Obama's Republican rivals reject his immigration plans as an "amnesty" for illegal immigrants and have criticized the new enforcement policies as a backdoor path to citizenship.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano defended the new measures earlier this month, saying: "It makes sense to prioritize our finite resources on removing a Mexican citizen who is wanted for murder in his home country ahead of a Mexican national who is the sole provider for his American citizen spouse."

Photo credit: Lionel Allorge