Report: $18 Billion Spent on Immigration Enforcement

The federal government, deemed by critics as unwilling to secure the nation’s borders, spends more on immigration enforcement than on all its major law enforcement agencies combined, according to a report released Monday by the Migration Policy Institute.

The think tank’s report estimates that in fiscal year 2012, the federal government spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement efforts, about 24 percent more than it spent in combined funding for the FBI, the Secret Service, the U.S. Marshal's Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Firearms and Explosives. There are also more people in detention annually for immigration violations, about 430,000, than are serving time in prisons for all other federal crimes combined.

The bulk of the $18 billion went primarily to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Border Patrol and US-VISIT, the country's biometric identification agency. Since 1986, when Congress last passed immigration reform, the government has spent about $187 billion on enforcement. The figure increases to $219 billion when adjusted for inflation.

The 181-page report chronicles the government’s immigration enforcement priorities and strategies since the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, when, the authors say, the current era of immigration enforcement began. Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service who is now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, said changes in immigration laws passed in 1996 and the build-up of border security after the 2001 terrorist attacks have contributed to the present-day “machinery.”

Such measures "embedded national security into every aspect of the immigration enforcement system; it led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, to new immigration agencies, the idea of connecting the dots regarding information sharing and of course it led to very, very substantial funding,” Meissner said in a conference call.

She said that despite the partisan battles over most aspects of immigration reform, both parties have agreed on increased funding for border enforcement. But the report adds that for the first time in decades, agencies charged with enforcing immigration laws could see a significant reduction in funding.

“In the face of these new fiscal realities DHS and Congress will be forced to look at immigration enforcement return on investment through a more strategic lens," the report says. "A sharp focus on impact and deterrence — not simply growth in resources — is all but inevitable."

Statistics back up the claim that the build-up is working in some ways: The Obama administration announced last month that in fiscal year 2012 it broke its previous record for deportations, with about 410,000 undocumented immigrants removed from the country, an increase of 13,000 from the previous year.

But the Migration Policy Institute also says traditional thinking about illegal immigration and the factors that drive it are outdated. According to the institute, Mexico's growing middle class, lower fertility rates and steady economic growth have driven down illegal migration northward.

In April, the Pew Research Hispanic Center estimated that the migration flow from Mexico to the U.S. had stopped and possibly reversed, with fewer deported immigrants attempting re-entry and many leaving voluntarily. 

“The facts on the ground no longer support assertions of mounting illegal immigration and demands for building an ever-larger law enforcement bulwark to combat it,” the report's authors said. In fact, apprehensions along the United States' southern border, which federal agencies usually use as a barometer on illegal immigration, have fallen to their lowest levels in decades.

The report comes at a time when the White House has reiterated its intent to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year. Following the 2012 election, when Hispanics turned out in large numbers in favor of Democrats, including President Obama, analysts said Republicans would probably be amenable to some overhaul of the nation’s immigration system.

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