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Report: Immigration tops federal law enforcement spending

A US Border Patrol vehicle drives along the fence separating the US from Mexico, near the town of Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, on July 31, 2010.
A US Border Patrol vehicle drives along the fence separating the US from Mexico, near the town of Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, on July 31, 2010.
Alfredo Estrella/Getty Images

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The United States government spent more money on immigration enforcement in fiscal year 2012 than it did on other federal law enforcement agencies combined, says a new report that details enforcement programs and spending.

Over a quarter century, spending on immigration enforcement has added up to nearly $187 billion. That's closer to $219 billion in 2012 dollars. The federal data is included in a new report titled "Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinery." One of its authors is Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the agency that preceded Homeland Security. She and others produced the report for an independent think tank, the Migration Policy Institute.

The report indicates that during the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30, the Obama administration's spending on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (which oversees the U.S. Border Patrol) and the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program hit $17.9 billion. This exceeded combined expenditures of $14.4 billion for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Secret Service, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

How did immigration enforcement spending get this big? The report charts the evolution of what over the years has become an "enforcement first" strategy, rooted in a time of historically high unauthorized migration to the U.S.  It says the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which proposed stricter enforcement alongside amnesty for immigrants already here, "marked the beginning of the current immigration enforcement era," especially after its enforcement components failed. From the report:

By the mid-2000s, the unauthorized population was estimated to number 11 million to 12 million and affected nearly every part of the country to varying degrees. Thus, illegal immigration and enforcement have been the dominant focus and concern driving immigration policymaking for more than 25 years.

During this time, there has been strong and sustained bipartisan support for strengthened immigration enforcement, along with deep skepticism over the federal government’s will or ability to effectively enforce the nation’s immigration laws. Support for enforcement has been heightened by the inability of lawmakers to bridge political and ideological divides over other reforms to the nation’s immigration policy.

As a result, a philosophy known as “enforcement first” has become de facto the nation’s singular response to illegal immigration, and changes to the immigration system have focused almost entirely on building enforcement programs and improving their performance.

This approach to illegal immigration took off in earnest during Meissner's leadership in the 1990s. That era saw the early proliferation of U.S.-Mexico border fencing near San Diego and other infrastructure under what was known as Operation Gatekeeper. It continued to grow exponentially in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The report breaks down the enforcement-first strategy into six "pillars" that include border enforcement; visa controls and travel screening; workplace enforcement; detention and removal of noncitizens; information and interoperability of data systems; and the intersection of the criminal justice system and immigration enforcement.

One example of the latter two components in practice would be Secure Communities, enacted in 2008. That program allows local law enforcement to share the fingerprints of people it arrests  with Homeland Security. The new report explains in detail that program and many others, along with the expanded detention and removal system. Some highlights:

With a steep decline in illegal entries in recent years, coupled with inevitable spending cuts during a slow economic recovery, how long will the current enforcement approach remain viable? Meissner and her Migration Policy Institute colleagues point out that "enforcement alone is not sufficient to answer the broad challenges that immigration — illegal and legal — pose for society and for America’s future" and suggest aligning immigration policy with economic and labor market needs. The report goes on: 

Successive administrations and Congresses have accomplished what proponents of “enforcement first” sought as a precondition for reform of the nation’s immigration policies. 

The formidable enforcement machinery that has been built can serve the national interest well if it now also provides a platform from which to address broader immigration policy changes suited to the larger needs and challenges that immigration represents for the United States in the 21st century.

View the complete MPI report here.