Now the selectivity based on national origin is posing a dilemma about broader immigration enforcement. While praising the focus on people they say fit the profile of the 9/11 hijackers, supporters of stricter immigration laws want the Bush administration to expand the hunt to all illegal immigrants, regardless of background.
"It does make sense to start with people from terrorist states," said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for Numbers USA, a nonprofit group that advocates curtailing immigration. "But we haven't seen any indication that we're moving beyond those terrorist-sponsor states yet.. . . This White House has very, very mixed feelings about the whole immigration issue."
Immigration advocates likewise criticize the selectivity, but for different reasons. They bemoan what they call ethnic profiling and inequitable treatment that runs counter to American notions of justice.
"We have to be consistent," said Marwan Kreidie, director of the Arab-American Association of Philadelphia. "Obviously we're not getting tough on immigration overall, and it sends a loud message that the government is biased."
After the attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft made the search for suspected terrorists, criminals or human smugglers the priority for immigration agents. Officials quickly focused on 33 countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia - all with dominant or substantial Muslim populations deemed to be high-risk for harboring terrorists or their supporters.
Ashcroft's aides created operations or methodically retooled general-enforcement programs to focus on people from those countries, officials have said.
As a result in fiscal year 2002 (which began just after the Sept. 11 attacks), the immigration service deported 3,208 people from the 33 high-risk countries. That was a 75 percent increase from 1,836 deported the previous fiscal year, according to immigration data now maintained by the Department of Homeland Security, which absorbed the Immigration and Naturalization Service in March.
The rise far surpassed deportation increases after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and after passage of a landmark immigration-reform law in 1996, when the focus was on other national groups, notably Latinos.
At the same time last year, immigration agents carried out 28,833 fewer deportations overall. By far the biggest decline was among Mexicans, who constitute the largest single national group among all deportees and undocumented immigrants. Their deportations fell from 141,335 to 108,643, a difference of 32,692 - a total roughly equivalent to the population of Willingboro, N.J., or Lower Makefield, Bucks County.
The figures only include deportations in which a judge ordered a person physically removed from the country, often straight from jail. They do not include "voluntary departures," which were far more numerous and entailed a judge releasing people on condition they leave on their own, without escort.
The enforcement based on country of origin is legal, predicated on immigration laws used many times in U.S. history to pick and choose newcomers based on nationality, net worth, even health.
The shift in criteria last year stemmed from the intensive focus on terrorism after the attacks, said Greg Palmore, a spokesman at the Department of Homeland Security.
"Individuals had to take on special assignments that took away from other detention-and-deportation operations," Palmore said. "Those particular countries were looked at because of the al-Qaeda presence, not because of racial or ethnic profiling."
Palmore said the same priorities applied today, although he could not say whether nationality differences would persist at the same rate. Preliminary figures for 2003 indicate that total deportations are moving back to pre-Sept. 11 levels.
"The new priorities are being molded as we speak, but terrorism is still at the top," Palmore said.
Steve Camarota, research director at the nonpartisan Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based restrictionist group, said narrowing the general-enforcement programs to focus on Arabs and Muslims "in a time of war makes sense."
But Camarota and other proponents of immigration restrictions want the administration to expand the crackdown to all groups.
"The $64,000 question is, are they going to go beyond it?" Camarota said. "Or is it this philosophy that we have the 'good' and 'bad' aliens and we're not going to go after the good ones? . . . The administration is split on this question."
Immigration advocates, for their part, say "nationality profiling" has put unfair pressure on Arab and South Asian communities and creates resentment that harms the antiterrorism effort.
"Enforcement has been completely disproportionate," said Leila Laoudji, an attorney in the National Immigration Project at the Boston-based National Lawyers Guild. "People with serious breaches of the law are not looked at, while in the Muslim or Arab community somebody with a minor violation automatically gets deported."
Contact staff writer Thomas Ginsberg at 215-854-4177 or firstname.lastname@example.org.