When the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its analysis of the Gang of Eight's immigration bill Tuesday—which showed the legislation would cut the deficit by $197 billion over the next 10 years and by $700 billion over the next 20 thanks to tax revenue from increased economic activity—its opponents pounced. "If there’s one thing Washington knows how to do, it’s to come up with bogus cost estimates," Texas Senator Ted Cruz told right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who like Cruz sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee and has been a staunch opponent of the bill, assailed the agency for failing to account for spending past the first ten years (the agency typically does not conduct detailed cost projections past ten years given the difficulty of doing so accurately).
But despite the ballyhoo over how much the bill will cost U.S. taxpayers, there is one area where money seems to be no object: border security. The CBO estimates the border-security provisions in the Senate bill would cost $15 billion over the next 10 years. Conservative senators have sought to add billions more to the tally by, among other proposals, requiring the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to build 700 miles of double-layered fence along the border ($49 billion); implement a biometric entry-exit system at all land, air, and seaports ($25 billion); and hire 10,000 new border patrol agents ($17 billion). The border fence and the biometric entry-exit system have previously been mandated by Congress, but DHS was forced to scale back the projects when they ran far over cost and encountered logistical problems.
"Not a lot of consideration is given to the cost or feasibility of these mandates," says Walter Ewing, a senior researcher at the Immigration Policy Center. "Since immigration enforcement now falls under the rubric of national security, no amount is considered too much."
Proposals under discussion in the House would similarly balloon costs. The SAFE Act, which passed through the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, would criminalize unlawful presence in the country (without legalizing the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants), authorize state and local governments to enforce immigration law—on the federal government's tab—and mandate detention for those caught in violation of immigration law. The CBO has not scored the bill yet, which unlike the Senate one does not specify the amount of money Congress is appropriating to enforce it; it only says that "[t]here are authorized to be appropriated such sums as may be necessary to carry out" its various provisions. But given that the bill criminalizes 11 million people and requires their detention if apprehended, it would entail a significant expansion of the current detention system, which currently houses 400,000 people per year at a cost of $2 billion. But with the unrestricted authority the SAFE Act hands over to states and municipalities, there is theoretically no cap on the cost to the federal government. "It's really an unfunded mandate that puts states and localities in driver's seat in terms of them determining what cost to government is going to be," says Kamal Essaheb, an immigration policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. "It would be expensive in ways that haven't even been considered," adds Ewing.
The ramp-up in border security called for by the current Senate bill—and Republican proposals to expand it further—comes after a period of unprecedented investment in our enforcement capabilities. In 2003, the year DHS was created, the U.S. spent about $7 billion on immigration enforcement. Today, the federal government spends $18 billion per year—more than the sum total of all other federal law-enforcement efforts combined—according to the Migration Policy Institute. The expenditure is evident in various enforcement metrics: The U.S. has doubled the number of border patrol agents and deported immigrants at record rates. All of these measures, combined with the recession, have brought the immigration level to net zero.
Given these figures, one would think further spending on enforcement would be unnecessary. But efficacy or cost-effectiveness in controlling immigration is not the goal. "They come more from political compromise rather than what is necessary for security or immigration control," Ewing says. "The goal is get as many Republican votes as possible to pass the bill. It's get-tough posturing. It's not meant to solve the problem."
Among bait for Republicans in the current Senate bill are $1.4 billion for a mandatory employment-verification system, $6 billion for 3,500 new border patrol agents, $1.2 billion for improving border communications, and about $7 billion for 40 new border-patrol facilities, air and watercraft, and infrastructure improvements. The $15 billion total the CBO estimates the legislation would spend on border security does not include the resulting cost to various other law-enforcement agencies; the immigration court system gets $1.7 billion, the Department of Defense gets $4 billion, and the Department of the Judiciary gets $3.2 billion.
Besides the targeted provisions of the Senate bill, it is the broad mandates that lawmakers are setting that pose the greatest risk for runaway costs. The Senate bill calls for the Secretary of DHS to submit a proposal within six months of enactment to maintain 90 percent "effective control" of the border—i.e., stop 90 percent of those who attempt to cross. Not only does the Senate bill not account for the cost of this broad goal, the implementation of which will be at some point in the unspecified future, it is a tricky measure to implement: How does one determine 90 percent of people have been apprehended without knowing the number who got across without detection? The conundrum is emblematic of the ways Congress has, since 9/11, set enforcement benchmarks for DHS with little consideration of their feasibility.
But the cost to the government only scratches the surface of the impact proposals like criminalizing the undocumented would have. "You're talking about 11 million people—3 percent of the population," says Essaheb. "Half of these people are in the workforce. That impact would be astronomical."
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