WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States deported nearly 400,000 illegal immigrants in fiscal 2011 -- the highest number since the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency was formed eight years ago.
About 396,906 foreign nationals were deported in the fiscal year ending September 30, the agency said on Tuesday.
This compares to about 393,000 removed in fiscal 2010.
The figure highlights tensions in President Barack Obama's attempts to ease deportations, which have been steadily increasing, and his desire to formulate a more popular immigration policy ahead of 2012 elections.
Illegal immigration is a hot political issue in the United States. More than 11 million illegal immigrants live and work in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
States including Arizona and Georgia have tried to enact their own laws cracking down on illegal immigration, arguing that the federal government has done too little to stop it.
While Obama has failed so far to get Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, he ordered the Department of Homeland Security in August to prioritize deportations of people who faced criminal charges -- a move viewed by analysts as a way to appease advocates of more liberal immigration laws.
In the 2008 election, 67 percent of Hispanics voted for Obama over his Republican rival John McCain.
"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," said John Morton, director of ICE.
Just over half of those removed from the country had been convicted of crimes related to drugs, driving under the influence, homicide or sex offenses.
Slightly more than 142,000 of the deportations were immigrants the agency describes as "recent border crossers" or those who had repeatedly broken immigration law.
The agency credited the increased deportations to the expansion of programs like the Secure Communities Program where local authorities send fingerprints of those arrested to ICE. The program has grown under Obama from 14 jurisdictions to more than 1,300.
(Reporting by Lily Kuo; Editing by Deborah Charles and Cynthia Osterman)