The Real Price of Sealing the Border

The Wall Street Journal

April 08, 2011

Immigration authorities will never have the money to stop all illegal immigrants, as Sen. John McCain and others demand. What's needed are laws that are in line with labor market realities.

By James W. Ziglar and Edward Alden

It took a budget crisis of unprecedented proportions, but the U.S. Congress is finally starting to ask some tough questions about what it’s getting for the billions of dollars that have been spent on securing the borders against illegal entry.

The immigration enforcement budget has more than tripled over the past decade, but only recently have some in Congress finally begun to demand a better accounting of the results.  In a series of hearings, both Republicans and Democrats who oversee homeland security have sharply criticized the administration over its failure to state clear objectives and measure the outcomes. 

The effort is long overdue.  Congress and the administration have never defined “border security,” have never spelled out how much immigration enforcement is “enough,” and have not tried to bring immigration laws into line with the resources available for enforcement and the needs of our economy.

Here’s a place to start.  The U.S. government already has a rough idea what it would take to meet all the immigration mandates established by Congress, and the numbers are staggering.  In 2002, on of us (Mr. Ziglar) initiated an unprecedented analysis of the massive, inconsistent patchwork of mandates imposed on the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) by Congress.  Mr. Ziglar testified publicly on the conclusions of that study before the 9/11 Commission, but its findings have never been widely disseminated.

At the time of the study, total INS funding was approximately $6 billion.  The study concluded that, by 2010, the INS budget would need to increase at least seven-fold, to more than $46 billion, to meet congressional mandates.

There was not the slightest chance then, nor is there now, that the U.S. will devote that much money to immigration enforcement.  The enforcement budget is now more than $17 billion, and congressional immigration mandates have only increased since 2002.  In just one of the key metrics is the government even close to reaching the targets suggested by the study – the number of Border Patrol agents, which is currently just under 21,000, double the level of five years ago.

Realistically, there will be little additional money for immigration enforcement.  President Obama’s 2012 budget proposal freezes Department of Homeland Security expenditures.  House Republicans, for whom rising deficits apparently pose a bigger threat than illegal immigration, have called for deep cuts to the DHS budget, a proposal that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called “an experience in whiplash” after years of large budget increases.

Even if additional funds were somehow appropriated, the notion that current immigration laws could be fully enforced if only we had more money and determination is simply wrong-headed.  It is not enough, as Sen. John McCain and some others keep insisting, that the border be “secured” before any other action is taken.

What is needed now is a more serious examination of priorities and trade-offs.  The number off illegal crossings on the Mexican border is down at least 70% from its peak in 2000.  Is this enough security?  If not, how much more is needed, and what is Congress willing to pay for it?  In terms of discouraging illegal immigration, how does a dollar in additional Border Patrol spending compare with an extra dollar on workplace enforcement?  There has been little good research that would help members of Congress answer that question.

What’s needed is to reform our immigration system so that it doesn’t encourage illegal immigration.  This requires reforming the laws on legal immigration rather than just the enforcement components.  A realistic, flexible visa program that matched available workers to open jobs in both boom times and bust would reduce much of the pressure on limited enforcement resources at the border and in the workplace.

What about legalizing those here illegally?  Using and misusing the loaded term “amnesty,” opponents have shut down consideration of any program that could deal with this question realistically.  Such opposition has even blocked the Dream Act, which would have given legal status to about 800,000 children brought to this country by their parents, who few in Congress actually want to see deported.

The Obama administration has been pilloried for focusing on the deportation of illegal immigrants with criminal records rather than indiscriminately hunting down every immigration violator.  But a sensible legalization program would bring enforcement resources more in line with reality and restore integrity to the laws by increasing the odds that law-breakers will be indentified, apprehended and deported.

Few, if any, government agencies outside the immigration services have been allowed to operate for so long under legal mandates so utterly disconnected from their resources and capabilities.

It’s a good first that members of Congress have begun sensible discussions over what types of enforcement measures may be most needed, and how much the country should be willing to spend.  Its time for all sides to work together to figure out what measures will yield effective and cost-efficient solutions both to our immigration problem and to our needs for high-skilled and low-skilled labor.

Mr. Ziglar, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, was commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President George W. Bush. 


This article originally appeared as an opinion piece in the April 8, 2011 edition of the Wall Street Journal.

Related Services & Industries

Government Advocacy & Public Policy