By Tim Gaynor
(Reuters) - U.S. Hispanics disapprove of President Barack Obama's stepped up deportation program by a two-to-one margin, although support for the Democrat over top Republican rivals remains strong, according to a new study.
The Obama administration deported a record 396,000 unauthorized immigrants last year, up about 7 percent on 2008, the last year Republican George W. Bush was in office.
More than half those deported were convicted criminals, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
The study by the non-partisan Pew Hispanic Center released Wednesday found 59 percent of Latinos surveyed disapproved of the way the Obama administration handles deportations.
Twenty-seven percent of the nationwide sample of 1,220 adult Latinos -- including 557 who said they were registered voters -- said they favored the policy, while 13 percent did not know or declined to answer.
Hispanics are the largest and fastest growing minority in the United States, totaling 50.5 million in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
They are an increasingly powerful bloc who supported Obama for president in 2008 by a two-to-one margin over Republican rival John McCain.
Despite rejection of his deportation program, support for Obama and the Democratic Party remains strong among Latino registered voters as he runs for reelection in 2012, the survey found.
In a hypothetical match-up against former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Obama wins 68 percent to 23 percent among Latino registered voters.
And in a match-up against Texas Governor Rick Perry, Obama wins the Latino vote 69 percent to 23 percent, it found.
"We found that among Latino registered voters ... there's still strong support for the president and still strong party affiliation to the Democrats among Hispanic registered voters," Mark Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center and the lead author of the study, told Reuters.
The Pew Hispanic study found two-thirds -- 67 percent -- of Hispanic registered voters say they identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 20 percent said the same about the Republican Party.
When asked which party has more concern for Hispanics, 45 percent said it is the Democratic Party, while 12 percent said it is the Republican Party. The share that identifies the Republican Party as the better party for Hispanics is up six percentage points.
The study has an overall margin of error of 3.6 percentage points, with a margin of error of 5.2 percentage points in the sample of those registered to vote.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)