New Report Offers Deceptive Assessment of Immigration Enforcement

By Jessica Vaughan January 2013

Contact: Jessica Vaughan,, (508) 346-3380

See also:

"A Bogus Immigration-Enforcement Factoid: A respected think tank makes a phony claim"

"Doubling Down on an Immigration Factoid"

Washington, D.C. (January 10, 2013) - A new report being promoted by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a research institute dedicated to promoting migration, paints a deliberately misleading picture of the state of immigration law enforcement. The report, titled Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinery, is presented as an objective assessment of immigration programs, and has been widely covered in the news media -- but is riddled with false statements, cherry-picked statistics, and inappropriate comparisons. This compilation of bogus findings aims to convince opinion leaders and the public that the government has succeeded in creating an effective "bulwark" of immigration enforcement that cannot be improved upon much, and suggests that spending cuts might be in order. MPI, which has close ties to the White House, has issued this report in a transparent attempt to help sell the President's immigration agenda, which includes amnesty for illegal immigrants, further restrictions on immigration enforcement, and expanded legal immigration.

Researchers at the Center for Immigration Studies have found numerous problems in the MPI report. Below, in bold, are some of the false and/or deceptive statements found in the report’s executive summary, followed by our critique.

  • "U.S. Spends More on Immigration Enforcement than on FBI, DEA, Secret Service & All Other Federal Criminal Law Enforcement Agencies Combined; Nearly $187 Billion Spent on Federal Immigration Enforcement over Past 26 Years." This is the headline on the MPI press release, and the most egregious falsehood in the report. First, MPI grossly inflates the immigration enforcement spending totals by tallying all spending by three Department of Homeland Security agencies -- Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and US-VISIT. But a large share of these agencies' activities are not immigration enforcement, including customs screening and enforcement, drug and weapons interdiction, cargo inspection, returning stolen antiquities, and intellectual property violations. Some of these agencies’ activities, such as inspecting incoming travelers at ports of entry and maintaining databases, are not enforcement at all, but routine administrative work. It is impossible to determine how much the federal government has spent on immigration enforcement in any year, much less the last 26 years, because the Department of Homeland Security and its predecessor, INS, have never tracked these activities; but one thing is obvious – that amount is certainly far less than $187 billion. It is probably at least 25-30% less, judging by historical budgets for Customs enforcement.

  • Second, MPI's comparison of immigration enforcement spending to other federal law enforcement spending is similarly deceptive. MPI fails to include several big-ticket agencies in its tally of other principal federal law enforcement expenditures, such as the federal prison system and the U.S. Attorneys. This is important, because MPI counted similar program expenses in ICE and CBP's budget (immigration detention, Border Patrol, and ICE trial attorneys).1

  • Further, MPI excludes expenses of more than a dozen other federal law enforcement agencies that are part of "other federal law enforcement." Some of these law enforcement agencies, such as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), have budgets larger than ICE, DEA, or ATF.2

  • A few simple adjustments turn MPI's dubious calculations upside-down. Subtract a conservative estimate for customs enforcement ($4.4 billion) from the immigration agencies, and add the Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Attorneys, and TSA to the "All Others" total spending, then immigration enforcement costs closer to half of "All Others," not more, as MPI claims (See Table 1). Add in the other missing federal law enforcement agencies and the whole point about a huge immigration enforcement complex disappears.

  • Some of what MPI calls immigration enforcement overlaps and possibly even surpasses the efforts of other federal criminal law enforcement agencies. It would be interesting to compare, for example, the number of CBP drug and weapons seizures with DEA and ATF statistics, and the number of ICE gang arrests and prosecutions with FBI activities. That is beyond the scope of this fact sheet, but such an analysis would give some context to MPI’s facile spending comparisons.

  • "Border Patrol staffing, technology and infrastructure have reached historic highs, while levels of apprehensions have fallen to historic lows." Border Patrol funding is higher than ever, but illegal immigration has been higher in the last decade than 20 or 40 years ago. Apprehensions are down overall, but that is an incomplete measure of progress, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which has concluded that DHS had achieved operational control of only a small share of the southwest border. According to the latest GAO report, the Border Patrol is intercepting only an estimated 61% of illegal crossers.3

  • "CBP and ICE together refer more cases for prosecution than all Department of Justice (DOJ) law enforcement agencies combined." This MPI factoid is based on data they retrieved with a do-it-yourself on-line analytical tool, and is therefore difficult to replicate.4 In any case, immigration prosecutions are the fast food of the federal criminal justice system; there are lots of offenders, the cases are relatively simple, and the sentences (if any) are relatively short because removal is usually the outcome. Another more accessible and perhaps more reliable source, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, reports that immigration cases represent a much smaller share of the federal criminal justice docket than MPI suggests. Their 2011 annual report says that immigration offenders were 35% of all those sentenced in federal court that year, meaning there were twice as many sentenced offenders from non-immigration agency prosecutions than from CBP and ICE.5 However, this same report notes that 10% of murderers, 31% of drug traffickers, 34% of money launderers, 64% of kidnappers, and 28% of food and drug offenders sentenced that year were non-citizens, so it's easy to see why immigration enforcement should be such a high priority in federal law enforcement. Obviously these two sets of data are measuring different things – referrals for prosecution and sentenced offenders -- but they are equally valid measures of the immigration agencies’ footprint in the federal criminal justice system. MPI obviously preferred the more melodramatic of the two.

  • "Since 1990, more than 4 million non-citizens, primarily unauthorized immigrants, have been deported from the United States. Removals have increased dramatically in recent years ..." As the president has said, these numbers are "actually a little deceptive."6 The "dramatic" increases in deportations, removals and returns occurred between 2005 and 2009; since then, the numbers have flattened out.7 By discussing the increases over the time span 1990 to 2011, MPI is able to avoid drawing attention to the recent stagnation in enforcement. It has been established that recent deportation statistics are heavily padded with cases that were not previously counted as such.8 In addition, ICE arrests have been trending downward since 2008, after a sharp rise that year; it's hard to see how deportations can be rising when apprehensions are falling.9

  • "Fewer than half of the noncitizens who are removed from the United States are removed following hearings and pursuant to formal removal orders from immigration judges." MPI tries to give the impression that noncitizens are being denied due process. As discussed in a recent CIS publication,10 there are many reasons why DHS is able to remove noncitizens without a hearing. The main reason is because most of the aliens selected for removal by ICE are not entitled to a hearing, either because they are convicted criminals or because they have been ordered removed before. Considering how backlogged the immigration court system is, which MPI notes with great concern, the fact that DHS is using more expedited processing in many cases should be viewed with approval, not alarm.

  • "The average daily population of noncitizens detained by ICE increased nearly five-fold between FY 1995-11 ... a significantly larger number of individuals are detained each year in the immigration detention system than are serving sentences in federal Bureau of Prisons facilities for all other federal crimes." This is another silly apples-to-anchovies comparison. MPI compares the static number of federal prisoners (about 218,000) with a year’s worth of immigration detainees (429,000). It would have been more appropriate (but still pointless) to compare the average daily immigration detention population (33,000) with the BOP number. MPI probably also noticed on the Bureau of Prisons web site that immigration offenders represent only 12% of the federal inmate population, a statistic that does not fit in with their portrayal of a massive immigration enforcement dragnet that dominates the federal corrections system. But as MPI notes, the immigration detention system is not at all like the federal prison system in purpose or nature. Immigration detention is more comparable to the local jail system, which has an average daily population of about 750,000 inmates.11

Table 1: Spending for Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agencies
Compared To All Other Comparable Federal Law Enforcement Agencies: FY 2012
(in billions of dollars)

End Notes

1 Moreover, the figures MPI uses for the immigration agencies’ spending are actually budget requests, not appropriations or expenditures. In contrast, the other federal law enforcement spending figures are amounts actually expended. A small point, perhaps, but indicative of their sloppy methodology.
2 Other federal law enforcement agencies excluded include the National Park Service, Federal Protective Service, Treasury agents, and LEAs attached to the large federal departments, such as State, Defense (including Military Police), Agriculture, U.S. Postal Service, and so on.
3 Government Accountability Office, Border Patrol: Key Elements of New Strategic Plan Not Yet In Place to Inform Border Security Status and Resource Needs,
5 U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2011 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics,
6 Vaughan, “Obama: Deportation Numbers Actually a Little Deceptive, “
7 DHS Immigration Enforcement Actions, 201,
8 Rep. Lamar Smith,
9 DHS Immigration Enforcement Actions, 2011
10 Reasoner and Vaughan, "Secure Communities By the Numbers, Part 3" "If the law doesn't require it; if Congress has provided other forms of due process outside of the immigration court venue; if immigration judge hearings are lengthy, often delayed, and costly to taxpayers; and if scheduling a hearing substantially prolongs the length of detention for many aliens who are neither entitled to be released on bond nor have any reasonable chance at relief from deportation, then there are few reasons why the government should opt to go the immigration judge hearing route when alternatives exist, whereas there are many sound reasons not to do so.”
11 Bureau of Justice Statistics, and Bureau of Prisons,