Enforcement Blues: Do We Want an Immigration Agency That Works, or Not?

By Mark Krikorian on January 26, 2004

National Review Online, January 26, 2004

A recent Cato Institute forum revealed the true attitude of many in the White House about immigration-law enforcement.

The forum (watch the Real Video file here) featured, among others, Margaret Spellings, assistant to the president for domestic policy, and point person for the president's immigration proposal. Everyone gave the speech he was expected to, but it was during the Q&A that things got interesting. One of the other panelists, my director of research, Steven Camarota, briefly mentioned the alternative to the president's amnesty plan: using consistent, across-the-board enforcement of the immigration law to cause attrition of the illegal population over time. The White House response?

Ms. Spellings laughed.

Then she suggested, "You need to come visit Austin, Texas."

At the risk of being churlish, I'd suggest that Ms. Spellings ought to come visit Washington, D.C. A brief detour through the realm of fact shows that immigration is a much, much bigger deal in Washington than in Austin. The Austin area's population is only 13.5 percent foreign born, compared to 20 percent in the Washington area, according to 2002 data from the Census Bureau. Also, the total number of immigrants in the Washington area is more than one million, over five times greater than in Austin.

Be that as it may, Spellings's dismissal of the very idea of immigration-law enforcement confirms the worst fears of observers inside and outside the immigration agencies: that the new laws envisioned by the president's proposal wouldn't be enforced any more vigorously than the old ones, leading to yet more illegal immigration and a need for further amnesties down the road.

This lack of political commitment to the work of a particular government agency is nothing new. When Republicans are in power, agencies they would like to get rid of but can't, like the Labor Department, tend to be denied resources and political support in order to inhibit their ability to function. Likewise, Democratic administrations, whether or not they actually "loathe the military," still accord it low priority, leading to erosion in pay and readiness. Hobbling the military is, of course, a much bigger deal than hobbling the Labor Department, but the impulse is the same.

What's unique about the immigration bureaucracy is that no one in the political elite wants it to work properly, so it remains underfunded and unappreciated, regardless of the party in power.

The frustration among the denizens of the immigration bureaucracy over this lack of commitment has come to a boiling point as a result of the president's plan. The National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents agents, recently wrote to its members that:

. . . his proposal is a slap in the face to anyone who has ever tried to enforce the immigration laws of the U.S. It implies that the country really wasn't serious about it in the first place, in spite of what you were told about "the big picture." And, in the meantime, while you're out there trying to do your jobs - which the country isn't too serious about - you'll have to deal with the expected increase in attempted EWI's [Entrants Without Inspection, i.e., border jumpers] who are trying to get here to take advantage of the proposed amnesty - oops, earned legality.

Rep. Jim Kolbe (R., Ariz.), whose own illegal-alien amnesty bill (H.R. 2899) was the starting point for the White House proposal, got a taste of this frustration last week at a town meeting in Sierra Vista, where he was greeted by a jeering crowd and "a mock-up of a U.S. Border Patrol agent with a knife through his back, with the words 'Kolbe Amnesty' on the blade." (See a photo of the Border Patrol "agent" here.)

Actually, the Border Patrol enjoys more political support among Republicans than other parts of the immigration bureaucracy, if only because of its paramilitary image and culture. (Despite this fact, it has the highest employee turnover rate in the federal government.) Other immigration staff feel at least as abandoned by their superiors. One veteran employee in Washington says the main subject of water-cooler talk among former INS people at the Department of Homeland Security is how to find another job before the president's plan causes the agency to implode.

In lieu of bipartisan consensus, we need at least one of the major parties to be in favor of enforcing the law, if we're ever to have a capable immigration agency. The Democrats are not going to pick up the burden: Despite lots of good Democratic reasons to support tough immigration controls, the party leadership has given up on American workers.

So it's up to Republicans to adopt the immigration service and provide the political support necessary for any enforcement agency to do its work. If not, no immigration plan - whether it's the president's or anyone else's - is going to work.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.