Ever since the preliminary efforts by the US government to curb undocumented immigration in the 1980s, such as the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), our nation's immigration enforcement machinery has steadily become stronger, stricter and much more rigid. With current net undocumented migration from Mexico at or below zero and increased consequences for illegal crossing, new reports show that this level of strict enforcement is wasteful in terms of the federal budget and harmful as it attacks civil liberties of immigrants and citizens alike.
Monumental transformations in immigration law and enforcement since the 1990s have included border control, strict visa requirements, advanced data systems, and detention or deportation of aliens. Moreover, increasing integration of immigration control systems with criminal investigation mechanisms has also become a pillar of this drive to secure borders and address immigrant influx into the US.
A recent report by the Migration Policy Institute shows that these enforcement mechanisms are supported by a colossal increase in federal spending on immigration control:
The US government spends more on its immigration enforcement agencies than on all its other principal criminal federal law enforcement agencies combined. In FY 2012, spending for CBP, ICE, and US-VISIT reached nearly $18 billion. This amount exceeds by approximately 24 percent total spending for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Secret Service, US Marshals Service, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), which stood at $14.4 billion in FY 2012.
The report further highlights that, after taking inflation into account, the current spending for immigration enforcement agencies represents 15 times the spending for the INS in 1986. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) budget has increased almost 87 percent between 2005 and 2012.
Besides the enormous strain on spending, recent immigration enforcement mechanisms include programs which target immigrants already present in the US. The highly contentious Secure Communities Program allows ICE to cross-check fingerprints and biometric data collected from local police and law enforcement agencies with their own databases to verify the criminal backgrounds of immigrants.
Not only does local support for immigration enforcement undermine public trust in the police, but it makes a large part of the general public feel unsafe, quite contrary to what its name suggests. In 1996, laws were enacted to allow the Department of Homeland Security to deport non-citizens without conducting a hearing before an immigration judge. A study by the Immigration Policy Center depicts that the number of "removal orders" issued by DHS offices has alarmingly increased between 2002 and 2011, while orders by immigration judges, in contrast, have decreased.
It is evident from these trends that immigration enforcement has become a key priority for the federal government. However, overbearing expenditure and the imperfect interplay between immigration enforcement and criminal justice leads to increasingly counterproductive results. An "enforcement first" approach is not the answer to America's security challenges.