Immigration Enforcement: A History of Neglect

By Stanley Renshon on September 4, 2013

If there's one thing that former Secretary of Homeland Security Napolitano and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) agree on, it is that the enforcement of our immigration laws have been (Secretary Napolitano), and still remain (Sen. Rubio), broken.

In 2007, former Secretary Napolitano wrote in the Washington Post that, "No one favors illegal immigration. But there are upwards of 12 million people illegally in this country — people who work, who have settled their families and who have raised their children here. For 20 years our country has done basically nothing to enforce the 1986 legislation against either the employers who hired illegal immigrants or those who crossed our borders illegally to work for them. Accordingly, our current system is, effectively, silent amnesty." (Emphasis added)

She has a point even given her hyperbole. Americans thought, and Congress had promised, that the problem of illegal migration would be solved by the requirement that companies check the citizenship status of those they hired. It only became clear much later that the promise contained an enormous loophole; businesses did need to check, but they didn't need to verify what they were told. As a result, the number of illegal aliens began to grow, gradually at first and then with increasing speed.

The secretary's adjective "silent" is a good one because most Americans were not aware of what was happening and when they became aware of it they wanted the loophole closed and they wanted the immigration enforcement they had been promised. They still do.

Sen. Rubio has used a different adjective to describe the amnesty he sees in the Obama administration's approach to enforcement: "de facto". He has said, "We don't have real ways to enforce our immigration laws. The border in certain sectors is not fully secure. We have no way of tracking people that overstay visas. We have no way of confirming people's eligibility to work — when they get hired, there's no E-Verify." One could add to this list, but he is right. And his point is being made nearly six years into the Obama administration and after former Secretary Napolitano's Washington Post op-ed.

We have now arrived at a point very much like the one Ronald Reagan faced before he signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). There is wide recognition that there is an enormous problem with our immigration laws and their enforcement. The proof of that fact is that we have 11.5 million illegal aliens living and working in the United States and no effective border, workplace, or visa enforcement mechanisms to keep that number from going higher.

In the meantime, lack of ublic confidence in the government's ability and willingness to enforce our immigration laws contributes to the view that the government doesn't care and is beholden to large special interests. That corrodes the public's trust.

The Senate's recently passed immigration bill makes more large enforcement promises for which it doesn't provide real legislative or policy means to keep. For example, hiring more border guards or installing better equipment may decrease the number of those who cross the desert to get here, but it won't do much for those who use fake papers at regular manned border crossings. Nor will it deal at all with those who overstay their visas.

The Senate immigration bill will result in dramatic increases in the number of legal immigrants that the United States admits each year. No country in the world has ever attempted to integrate such large numbers of newcomers year after year. It will also legalize and provide a path to citizenship for the nation's approximately 11.5 million illegal aliens. And it promises to fix the country's broken system of immigration enforcement.

This is the grand bargain that is being offered: every specific interest group that took part in the closed-door Senate meetings will get more of the number and kind of immigrants they want. Those illegal aliens that are already here will receive instant legal status and eventually be eligible for citizenship. And border, workplace, and visa enforcement will be addressed.

Essentially, the integrity and enforcement of our immigration laws have became a bargaining chip to secure legalization for those who broke them and an opportunity to more than double the number of legal immigrants coming into the country each year.

Next: Defining Immigration Violations Away: The White House Contribution