Missing the point on immigration

By Mark Krikorian January 2013

The Washington Post, January 17, 2013

A recent report on immigration enforcement from the Migration Policy Institute, touted in these pages by one of its authors [“Beyond secure borders,” op-ed, Jan. 7], was both mistaken and missed the point. The news release about the report announced: “The U.S. government spends more on federal immigration enforcement than on all other principal federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined.”

This finding was the basis of widespread media coverage and will, as intended, be cited in the coming congressional debate over President Obama’s plans to legalize the illegal-immigrant population and increase legal immigration beyond the level of 1 million people each year. The political purpose of the report is to enable supporters of the president’s approach, both Democrats and Republicans, to claim that the “enforcement first” demand that sank President George W. Bush’s amnesty effort in 2007 has finally been satisfied, so no legitimate objection remains to “moving beyond” enforcement.

The first problem with this is that the report’s central claim is false. As the names of the relevant agencies suggest — Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — much of what they do has nothing to do with immigration. Recent ICE news releases, for instance, highlight a drug seizure, the sentencing of a child pornographer and a guilty plea by someone trying to smuggle dinosaur fossils. Important activities, no doubt, but ones clearly unrelated to immigration enforcement.

Beyond that, the report focuses on the wrong thing. In typical Washington bureaucratic fashion, it confuses resource inputs with policy results. There has indeed been a significant increase in funding for immigration enforcement, and this increase was desperately needed after decades of neglect — something that became undeniable after 9/11. But to claim, as Doris Meissner wrote in The Post, that a certain percentage increase in appropriated funds has allowed the nation to build “a formidable immigration enforcement machinery” is incorrect.

The report suggests that the billions spent on immigration enforcement have reached a point of diminishing returns. But take the example of the U.S. Border Patrol, a CBP agency. The number of agents has doubled over the past decade, to more than 21,000. That seems impressive until you consider that the Border Patrol is still smaller than the New York Police Department — and has 8,000 miles to monitor. It’s certainly possible that the Border Patrol doesn’t need more agents, but that’s not evident merely by doubling the previously small number of agents.

Something similar can be said of deportations: As the report and administration spokesmen have pointed out, the number of people deported (technically, “removed”) is at a record level: about 400,000 per year. But the steady growth in the number of deportations, starting in the Clinton administration, came to a halt with Obama’s inauguration. Perhaps 400,000 deportations a year, out of 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants, is enough — but not just because it’s a “record.”

And although one might be able to argue that the U.S. immigration enforcement machinery is adequate at the border or for deportations, fundamental pieces are still not in place despite the money that has been spent. For instance, the online E-Verify screening system is still not used for all new hires. The Social Security Administration and the IRS know the identities and locations of millions of people who are in this country illegally but shield them based on a fanciful interpretation of privacy law. The United States has only the most rudimentary system for tracking the departures of foreign visitors — and if you don’t know who has left the country, you can’t know who is still here. This is important because nearly half of the illegal-immigrant population came here legally but then didn’t leave.

These are not trivial, last-minute agenda items designed to postpone consideration of an amnesty. An immigration enforcement machinery that lacks these elements is simply incomplete.

And any law enforcement infrastructure is only as effective as the use to which it is put. The Obama administration has made clear that it views immigration violations as secondary matters, like not wearing a seat belt, which can lead to a citation only if some other, “real” law is violated. The most lavishly funded, gold-plated enforcement system in the world can’t make up for systematic nullification of the immigration law through prosecutorial discretion, deferred action and other means used by this administration to protect illegal immigrants.