The Obama administration spent more money on immigration enforcement in the last fiscal year than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, according to a report issued by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonpartisan group focused on global immigration issues.
According to this report, in the 2012 fiscal year, the government spent about $18 billion on immigration enforcement programs run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S.-Visit program, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes the U.S. Border Patrol.
Immigration enforcement topped the combined budgets of the FBI; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Secret Service by more than $3 billion dollars.
The 182-page report offers a detailed analysis of the current immigration enforcement system that was set in motion with passing of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986. The report traces the evolution of the system, particularly in the post-9/11 era, in terms of budgets, personnel, enforcement actions and technology.
It examines individual programs and results, ranging from Secure Communities and 287(g) to deportations, detention, post-9/11 visa screening and new federal databases, explaining how they have intersected — in some ways by deliberate design, in others by happenstance — to create a complex, interconnected, cross-agency system.
This report concludes that the Obama administration has made immigration its highest law enforcement priority. "Today, immigration enforcement can be seen as the federal government's highest criminal law enforcement priority, judged on the basis of budget allocations, enforcement actions and case volumes," MPI Senior Fellow Doris Meissner, a co-author of the report, said in a statement released with the report.
The report challenges a long-standing contention by immigration restrictionists that the U.S. needs more border security before it can consider immigration reform. Unprecedented manpower, infrastructure and technology deployed for border security efforts has led to a drop in apprehensions at the Southwest border to a level not seen since the 1970s. The plunge in apprehension is widely viewed as an indication that fewer immigrants are crossing illegally into the U.S.
In fact, net migration from Mexico has dropped to zero and may be going in reverse, meaning that more Mexican immigrants may be leaving the U.S. than are entering it. While enforcement plays a role in that decline, the migration numbers have also been affected by a sluggish U.S. economy, a growing Mexican middle class and shrinking fertility rates among Mexican women.
Yet according to the MPI report, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security deported nearly 410,000 people from the United States in 2012 and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) increased their worksite enforcement raids on paperwork audits, targeting employers who hire undocumented workers rather than targeting undocumented workers themselves.
This tough stance on immigration enforcement seems to contradict renewed interest in immigration reform from Congress and the White House. In the immediate aftermath of the November election, Congressional Republicans suggested that the time was right to begin reform talks anew, and President Barack Obama has promised to make immigration reform a priority in his second term.
In the lead up to the election, the president made several administrative changes to the immigration system, including the launch of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to allow some young undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation and work legally in the country for up to two years.
Also, earlier this month, the administration announced a change in process that will allow some undocumented immigrant spouses, parents and children of U.S. citizens to remain in the United States while they ask the government to waive three- or 10-year bans on returning to the United States because they have accrued unlawful presence.
Immigrants who win the waiver will still need to leave the country to complete visa paperwork but will be able to leave without fear of being barred from returning to their families for up to a decade. This rule goes into effect on March 4, 2013, and it is hoped that it will reduce the time certain immediate relatives have to be separated from U.S. citizen family members.
While the president acknowledges the need for effective border security, he also realizes that Congress’ failure to fix the broken immigration system has led to record and wasteful government spending on immigration enforcement. Generally, immigration laws have not changed in more than two decades and have come at an unjustifiably high cost to the American taxpayer.
Billions of dollars could be saved if government agencies better used the resources they’ve already been allocating, eliminated wasteful or duplicative programs and refocused our enforcement priorities on real threats rather than on people who have become an integral part of our workforce.
President Obama has promised to get immigration reform done in 2013. Let’s hope so.
--By Karen-Lee Pollak, Bell Nunnally & Martin LLP
Karen-Lee Pollak is a partner at Bell Nunnally & Martin, where she chairs the immigration practice group.
Originally published on Law360, Jan. 31, 2013. Posted with permission.