Over time, the United States Immigration system has undergone a myriad of comprehensive reforms which have proven to greatly impact the composition of its population. Though it is unclear whether these specific policies were products of theoretical assumptions, such as those associated with a country’s economic stature, the social norms of the time period, or further contributory factors such as the existing political landscape, the issue of immigration has continued to remain problematic in the 21st century and requires a structured approach.
Preceding the current Obama administration and previous Bush administrations of the early 2000s, relatively recent major reforms were made to the U.S. immigration system through the passage of bills beginning in 1986 under the Immigration Reform and Control Act, in 1990 under the Immigration Act, and in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (Bodvarsson and Van den Berg, 368). Each of these legislative bills proposes different sets of provisions which include, to some degree, address comprehensive immigration reform.
However, the policy strategy to include these broader reforms on recent immigration legislation have largely failed to emerge from beyond the preliminary procedures of Congress as a result of strong opposition by today’s lawmakers.
More specifically, the notable policy trend in contemporary immigration legislation involves the heavy emphasis on border enforcement as the principal solution to the issue as a whole. The comprehensive processes that were once established through the legislative bills of the 1980’s and 90’s, such as the family reunification programs, legal amnesty clauses, and population ceilings, are now largely absent from the one-dimensional enforcement system utilized today.
It is within the scope of this philosophical shift that has elicited the question of why the most recently implemented immigration policies have been limited to the expansion of border enforcement mandates, while preceding legislative reforms aimed to embrace a somewhat broader framework that addressed additional issues beyond enforcement? More importantly, is strictly focusing and funding border enforcement programs the most economically feasible solution in comparison to alternative methods? In order to reach an appropriate conclusion to the questions raised by the current trend, it is required that an extensive evaluation and comparison of the fiscal budgets of recent policies be conducted, in addition to an examination of the overall efficiency and effectiveness of those policies by analyzing annually recorded statistics.
Also, a thorough understanding of the overall complexities and interconnectedness of these policies with other prominent issues in the public policy realm is required and must serve as a starting point in order to clearly establish the context of the existing public discourse on immigration. This gradual regression of the US immigration system can be understood by first examining some of the ways in which certain large-scale issues played a role in the federal government’s policymaking process during the turn of the 21st century. Migration Policy Institute analyst Marc R. Rosenblum discusses some of these issues in depth in his insightful piece titled, Understanding the Stalemate over Comprehensive Immigration Reform. As he points out, the months following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks demonstrate the ways in which the immigration system was, though indirectly, greatly effected by the efforts made by Congress and the President to take swift action, in which he reiterates in his words, “immigration processes and border controls immediately became a central topic of concern,” (4). This immediate response by the government led to a massive restructuring of the immigration system under new security and anti-terrorism policy measures.
Any notion that these actions would essentially entail some comprehensive reforms would prove to only result in the passing of the Real ID Act in 2005 which only toughened regulations for immigrants trying to acquire a state driver’s license, and also did so only as an attachment to another unrelated measure (5). Other efforts by supporters of comprehensive immigration reform in both the House of Representatives and Senate would eventually fail to push forward any new legislation in 2006 and again in 2007 despite passing the Senate, but ultimately lose momentum for any chance to propose restructured visas or legalized amnesty after the abrupt economic decline of 2008 (6). Even more recent legislative efforts to renew comprehensive reforms by Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey in 2010, as well as by former Texas Representative Solomon Ortiz in 2009, died in Congress despite Ortiz’s CIR ASAP bill being referred to committees (loc.gov, 2012). Though Senator Menedez’s bill was reintroduced in earlier of June 2011 to the current 112th Congress, the senate has only passed a total of 24 public laws this year (loc.gov, 2012). In contrast, enforcement based provisions as well as their monetary funding requirements passed easily over the same period of time through bills such as the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 and the Secure Fence Act of 2006 (Rosenblum, 5).
The legislative activities during these years present the very pattern that remains today. One that had ultimately began with the passing of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, where President George W. Bush authorized the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which would eventually become the permanent cabinet department that federal border enforcement programs and immigration officials would operate under (Chishti et al, 2). In addition to his discussion on the policy agenda set forth by the 9/11 attacks, Rosenblum offers specific examples as to why the trend favoring the strict use of enforcement has continued and declares that within the field of immigration policy there is a strong bias which is, “in favor of enforcement rather than legalization or visa reform,” (10). He continues to then list three primary reasons for the existence of the bias noting of the cost-benefit advantages of migration enforcement, the procedural difficulties for drafting and enacting new legislation, and its classification as an issue which is conveniently easy to support in the political arena (Rosenblum, 11).
While Rosenblum’s examples summarize the most basic obstacles that have successfully defeated any efforts to formulate comprehensive reforms earlier in the decade, these same rationales have only continued on and remained consistent today, even under a newly elected President in Barack Obama. Given that the 2007 McCain-Kennedy bill marks perhaps the most legitimate effort at achieving comprehensive immigration reform in the 21st century, it seems as though the complexities of the legislative processes and strategic ploys utilized by the field’s major players have successfully prevented any changes to policy approach. However, it is also critical to note that Obama’s legislative agenda became focused with the sudden economic downturn shortly after taking office in 2008, as well as taking on other major legislation in addressing healthcare and insurance reform. The outline of these concerns can also be understood as a list of relatively new constraints upon comprehensive immigration supporters, as there is a distinct contrast in the policy approaches between the 107th-112th congress and those with which preceded it.
The earlier legislative bills which utilized comprehensive immigration measures, such as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, were generally aimed to address and, if successful, rid some of the problems at which the immigration system faced at the time. However, it is also clear that by doing so these specific programs also helped to realign and improve the current system as a means to better establish the general trajectory and stable functionality of the system in the future. Though the extent to which programs were more or less effective is often debated, it is necessary to assume that the immigration system as a whole requires continuous adjustments appropriate for fulfilling, as writer Richard A. Boswell states, “the overall objective of immigration laws in the United States,” or more specifically to, “keep the flow of people into the country to a manageable level, while preserving the interests of family unity and the need for labor,” (Boswell, 204).
While Boswell’s definition is by no means interpreted as federal law, the author’s statement essentially grasps the premise of immigration and two of its most pressing issues which remain at the core of the modern day discussion. As the congressional record of today’s policies in the greater the 21st century have shown, lawmakers have failed to properly preserve immigration by choosing to over pursue and implement a vast agenda of security measures which, have thus far proved only ineffective and highly inefficient in solving the field’s most glaring issues. The continued efforts to focus on enforcement and reestablish stricter policies have proceeded beyond necessity and have reached excessive levels of spending without producing adequate or proportional results.
The statistical reports provided by the federal government reinforce these observations, as they largely reflect the emphasis of strict enforcement programs backed with high spending, particularly when evaluating the fiscal year budgets and recorded results for all active US immigration organizations. For example, dating back to 1990 the United States Border Patrol had a fiscal year budget totaling the amount of $262,647. Since then, their budget has dramatically increased by 1,251 percent given their reported 2011 fiscal year budget of $3,549,295 (CBP.gov, 2012). For their parenting agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the budget also grew from $5.9 billion in 2003 to $11.8 billion in 2011 (DHS.gov, 2012). The newly created Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency also experienced a budget increase over time, from $3.3 billion to $5.7 billion in 2011 and peaking at $6 billion in 2009 (DHS.gov, 2012). The examination of the data also revealed an unlikely detail, depicting no drop or reduction in enforcement spending despite the economic downturn during the fiscal year of 2008, nor afterward in 2009 (DHS, 2012). Although the funding for enforcement continues to steadily increase, the immigration system remains largely cost-ineffective.
In an article published by the Immigration Policy Center, estimates calculated by the National Immigration Forum stated that costs to detain a single person under the ICE agency amount to $166 per day, and also require over five million dollars in daily operating costs to detain 33,400 people in more than 250 facilities (immigrationpolicy.org, 2012). The article also reported that, “In 2009 and 2010, over half of detainees did not have criminal records,” and that “Traffic offenses account for nearly 20 percent of those who did,” (immigrationpolicy.org, 2012). The statistics listed in the article suggest a clear pattern of inefficiency that takes place at a micro level on a day-to-day basis. Although it is hardly sufficient to utilize these numbers as the fundamental basis against the use of heavy enforcement in immigration, an examination of the fiscal issues and its greater impacts at the macro level represent many more problems. Given that the increased spending on enforcement programs aim to essentially reduce the overall unauthorized immigrant population in the United States and prevent further illegal entry into the country, statistics provided by research studies suggest that the coveted outcomes do no match the actual results.
When looking at the Department of Homeland Security’s annual population estimates for the unauthorized immigrant the number was reported to be 11,510,000 for the year 2011 which grew in comparison to the 10,790,000 estimated for 2010 (dhs.gov, 2012). Though there are immediate concerns given the data limitations which distort the overall accuracy of the estimates made by the DHS, the unauthorized immigrant population living in the United States has thus far grown significantly from the 8.5 million as detailed by the department back in the year 2000 and into the double digits during the new decade (dhs.gov, 2012). Those who strongly support the strategy of strict enforcement, such as Jessica M. Vaughan of Immigration Daily, expected quite the opposite of what the current statistics have measured. In her article, Vaughan anticipates that through strict enforcement tactics such as attrition, immigration enforcement should then greatly improve to being both “faster and cheaper,” (cis.org, 2012).
Also, she offers a prediction that the strategy could, “reduce the illegal population from its current 11.5 million to 5.6 million in a period of five years, a 51 percent reduction,” (cis.org, 2012). Considering the scope of these outcomes and the results of the actual data producing statistics not even remotely close indicate that the current enforcement programs are ineffective, but continue to experience budget growth. Still, in the simple context of theoretical presumptions, heightened security measures and the overall approach of adopting strict immigration laws should ideally yield the capacity to generate a mass reduction in the unauthorized immigrant population over time, and provide greater collective protection against the most dangerous criminals and/or terrorists that are considered threats to the United States. However, another alarming statistic mentioned by immigrant attorney Tara Magner from an analysis done by Syracuse University research proves the liability of these assumptions at which, “It found that less than 0.01% of arrests of noncitizens by Homeland Security agents were terrorist related,” (Magner, 3). With the steady growth of enforcement budgets continuing at the forefront of US immigration policy, one can conclude that the current system is in desperate need of more cost-efficient and highly beneficial reforms.
Another key aspect at which the current US immigration system affects is the national economy. For example, author Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda uses a general equilibrium model in his research to help calculate and project the economic outcomes of alternative immigration reforms (Hinojosa-Ojeda, 177). Under his first alternative scenario, which calls for the creation of, “a pathway to legal status for unauthorized immigrants in the United States and establishes flexible limits on permanent and temporary immigration,” his research estimates a yearly increase in the nation’s Gross Domestic Product by .84 percent, or $1.5 trillion dollars over a full decade (177). This alternative alone holds more positive benefits for an already struggling economy by primarily improving wages and productivity but also by increasing small-business formation, home ownership, and greater household investment in education (187).
In a second setting, Hinojosa-Ojeda analyzes the effects of a temporary worker program and concludes that the U.S. GDP would increase annually by a slightly less .44 percent, totaling an additional $792 billion over a 10-year span (177). While comparatively not the optimal scenario between the two, establishing a temporary worker program remains on the table when constructing a partisan bill in Congress. Also, an extreme third option proposing mass deportation is for the most part an unrealistic policy approach and widely unpopular on both sides of the issue but nevertheless, “serves as an extreme or boundary case against which we can evaluate the other two scenarios,” as articulated by the author. (188) When closely examining the first scenario and its greater effects, however, the comprehensive reforms also add close to $1.2 trillion dollars in consumption and more than $250 billion in investment, while also generating additional tax revenues of $4.5 to $5.4 billion dollars, numbers that can sustain new jobs at a range between 750,000 to 900,000 (189). It is then made clear that the benefits of comprehensive reforms exceed those brought forth by a temporary workers program or a mass deportation and is thus the most favorable option, despite any difficulties it may have in becoming a bipartisan political acquisition that successfully reaches a vote in Congress.