No, We Don't Need More Immigration Enforcement

AP Photo/Cliff Owen

Members of immigration rights organizations, including Casa in Action and Maryland Dream Act, demonstrate in front of the White House in Washington, Thursday, November 8, 2012, calling on President Barack Obama to fulfill his promise of passing comprehensive immigration reform. 

If you need proof that nothing short of a Soviet-style blockade along our Southern border will satisfy immigration hardliners, look no further than Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies—a think tank that, as the Southern Poverty Law Center points out, "has never found any aspect of immigration it liked." Krikorian has previously used his space at the National Review Online to grouse about the "unnatural" pronunciation of Sonia Sotomayor's name and to suggest that the United States slough off Puerto Rico to end the "gravy train." Last week, he used it to denounce a recent Migration Policy Institute report showing the United States spends approximately $18 billion per year on immigration enforcement, which exceeds federal spending on all other federal criminal law-enforcement efforts combined.

Being the scrupulous researcher that he is, Krikorian hopped over to the websites of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—the two federal agencies whose primary responsibility is immigration enforcement—and found some press releases about cyber crime and drug smuggling.  This naturally showed the report was lying because ICE and CBP don't spend all their money regulating immigration; they also enforce customs laws. Its authors, Krikorian concludes, were just cooking up numbers to support President Obama's open-borders, amnesty agenda. His organization followed up with a press release saying much the same thing a few days later.

This convoluted logic and paranoia is typical of the research Krikorian's group puts out, but it illustrates an important point about the immigration debate: No amount of money or resources will ever be enough to convince the enforcement-first crowd that the border is finally "secure." This sets up a road block: So long as securing our borders is a precondition for tackling immigration reform, opponents can always claim—citing a recent crime committed by an immigrant or anecdotal evidence of border violence—that we're just not there yet. In effect, "enforcement first" ends up being the "enforcement only." 

In truth, it's impossible for an open society to totally seal its borders; in the regular course of conducting trade and allowing visitors and immigrants in and out, there will inevitably be people who end up in the country illegally and illicit contraband that slips in as well. But in the same way that we don't measure the success of our police forces by whether their jurisdictions are totally crime-free, we shouldn't measure the efficacy of our immigration-enforcement efforts by whether anyone is ever able to break our immigration laws. 

By any reasonable standard, the unchecked immigration flow that began in the mid-1990s is now under control. We've doubled the number of Border Patrol agents in the last seven years and—to the chagrin of many immigrant-rights advocates—deported undocumented immigrants at record rates. Apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border are at historic lows. Despite the fact that current quotas don't meet the current economic demand for immigrant labor, immigration enforcement and the sour U.S. job market have reduced immigration to net zero for the first time in 40 years, down from a peak of 525,000 in 2000. The increase in spending on immigration enforcement is even more dramatic if one goes back to 1986, when the Immigration Reform and Control Act ushered in the current era of immigration policy; since then, our spending on immigration has increased 15-fold:

One can see the difference in resources allocated to border security since the 2007 push for immigration reform during George W. Bush's second term and especially since the 9/11 attacks, after which funding for enforcement exploded. But the change in policy seems not to have registered with lawmakers, who are still talking about the ever-growing need for enforcement as if it were 2000. The fact is that we've dedicated ample resources to enforcement; the question is now how best to use them and what to do with the rest of the broken system.

Thankfully, it appears that Republicans in Congress, chastened by November's Latino wake-up call, may finally be abandoning the "enforcement-first" strategy. On Saturday, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida told The Wall Street Journal that he supports a "comprehensive solution" that would include increased enforcement as well as a path to citizenship for most of the 11 million immigrants estimated to be in the country illegally. Other Republican leaders, including Tea Party hero Paul Ryan, voiced their support for Rubio's plan.

For political reasons, Rubio is still calling for stricter enforcement, which gives immigration hawks cover to vote for a comprehensive bill. But the irony is that reforming the immigration system would significantly reduce the need for enforcement. Unchecked immigration and widespread noncompliance with the law is the byproduct of our own failure to replace an outdated system. By ignoring labor demands—the United States only allots 5,000 green cards per year for low-skilled workers—and making legal immigration for certain classes of people (primarily low-skilled workers from Latin America) inordinately difficult, the current scheme encourages law-breaking; rather than navigate the byzantine immigration process or wait 6 to 17 years to be reunited with family members, many immigrants choose to bypass the system altogether. Our failure to reform the immigration system has thus led to huge backlogs in the immigration courts and required the expansion of detention centers, which house approximately 33,000 people per day. Quite simply, making it easier to comply with the law would make more people do so, alleviating the burden on law enforcement and allowing them to concentrate on higher-priority removals. Think of a leaky bathtub: Instead of buying a new one, we're spending ever more money patching up the cracks. Replacing the thing means the repairman will have less work.

You may also like