A Bogus Immigration-Enforcement Factoid

By Mark Krikorian on January 10, 2013

National Review Online, January 10, 2013

Think tanks in Washington usually have a point of view. Understandably, those views will color the questions they ask. But respected research organizations can’t stay respected for long if they intentionally mislead their readers.

I'm afraid that's what the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) has done in its recent report on immigration enforcement, which was highlighted in a Washington Post op-ed by one of the authors, Doris Meissner.

The report does show, as Meissner writes, that "the nation has made unprecedented, steep investments in the capacity of federal agencies to aggressively enforce immigration laws." It's good to know that all the money spent to make up for our past lack of seriousness in this area has been put to use.

But the core finding of the MPI study is simply false. The press release starts this way: "The U.S. government spends more on federal immigration enforcement than on all other principal federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined." This was seized on by reporters and activists and used, as intended, as an argument that we've had quite enough enforcement and it's time to move on to the president's goal of legalizing illegal immigrants and increasing future immigration. Or, as Meissner put it, "Changes must also be made to better align immigration policy with the nation's economic and labor market requirements and with future growth and well-being."

This finding served as the headline and lead of every story on the report. But the report counts the entire budgets of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as money spent on "immigration enforcement" — even though much of what these agencies do has nothing to do with immigration. As the agency names suggest, they emerged from the reshuffling of the Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service when both were folded into the new Department of Homeland Security in 2003.

Note this month’s press releases at the ICE website: Not one relates to immigration. There are announcements about child-pornography cases, a looted ancient artifact, cyber crime, drug smuggling, interstate prostitution, copyright violations, and counterfeit merchandise, and even one late last year on the smuggling of dinosaur fossils. All worthy targets of law enforcement, for sure. But these activities manifestly are not “immigration enforcement.”

Likewise with CBP. The agency screens cargo containers from abroad, examines the duty-free purchases of returning American tourists, and seizes more drugs than the Drug Enforcement Administration. Again, look at what the agency says about its own activities: Recent press releases tout a case involving the evasion of import duties, a trade symposium, the seizure of lead-contaminated toys, and "Guidance to Travelers Bringing Agriculture Items When Returning from the Hajj."

The agencies do not disclose the amounts they spend on immigration specifically, but the last separate budget of the Customs Service, in 2003, was $3.5 billion, or about $4.4 billion in 2012 dollars. Simply subtracting that amount from the total spending on "immigration enforcement" would negate the MPI study's central finding.

The report's authors acknowledge, in a footnote, the basic apples-and-oranges problem by noting that, since the agencies don’t provide breakdowns, "we did not subtract from the ICE, CBP, and US-VISIT budget totals the amounts devoted to these non-immigration enforcement activities." But four pages later they provide the report's key bar graph purporting to show "Spending for Immigration Enforcement."

What's more, even many immigration-related functions, those of CBP especially, cannot meaningfully be described as "law enforcement." Is the screening of arriving passengers at Dulles really comparable to the work of the FBI, DEA, and ATF? Or is it more akin to routine government operations, such as processing tax returns, issuing driver's licenses, or delivering the mail?

Sleight of hand like this might be expected from a lobbying group raising money through direct mail. But MPI, while firmly on the expansionist side of the immigration debate (my own Center for Immigration Studies is its restrictionist counterpart), has built a reputation for honest scholarship, leading to partnerships with, for instance, the federally funded Woodrow Wilson Center and the European Union.

MPI appears to have decided that promoting the president's immigration agenda in the 113th Congress is important enough to risk that reputation by releasing a fundamentally dishonest report. Whatever one’s views on immigration, such fraudulence is regrettable.