A record 392,862 illegal aliens were deported from the United States in 2010, but an investigative journalism organization questions how the number was reached.

The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) said that when officials of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) realized in the final weeks of the fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, that the agency still was in jeopardy of falling short of last year’s mark, it scrambled to reach the goal.

Officials quietly directed immigration officers to bypass backlogged immigration courts and time-consuming deportation hearings whenever possible, internal e-mails and interviews show, the CIR said.

Instead, officials instructed immigration officers to encourage eligible foreign nationals to accept a quick pass to their countries without a negative mark on their immigration record, ICE employees said.

The option, known as voluntary return, may have allowed hundreds of immigrants — who typically would have gone before an immigration judge to contest deportation for offenses such as drunken driving, domestic violence and misdemeanor assault — to leave the country.

A voluntary return doesn’t bar a foreigner from applying for legal residence or travelling to the United States in the future.

Once the agency closed the books for fiscal 2010 and the record was broken, agents say they were told to stop widely offering the voluntary return option and revert to business as usual.

Without these efforts and the more than 25,000 deportations that came with them, the agency would not have topped last year’s record level of 389,834, current and former ICE employees and officials said.

The CIR also said ICE used other methods to pad the numbers and that it included more than 19,000 immigrants who had left the previous year.

The CIR said without using a variety of uncommon methods to boost the numbers ICE wouldn’t have topped last year’s record of 389,834.

The 2010 fiscal year ended Sept. 30 and the methods ICE used in deporting illegal aliens broke no laws, officials said.

“It’s not unusual for any administration to get the numbers they need by reaching into their bag of tricks to boost figures,” said Neil Clark, a retired former Seattle field office director.

Clark worked for ICE during the Bush and Clinton administrations and he said both used similar methods.

ICE didn’t make any officials available for interviews, the CIR said, but defended its practices through e-mails.

“ICE offered eligible aliens...the opportunity to accept voluntary return,” said ICE spokesman Brian P. Hale. “The decision to accept VR [voluntary return] was the aliens.’”

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