Point of View

What $18 billion in 'enforcement-only' buys

January 9, 2013 

If enforcement alone could solve America’s illegal immigrant problem, it would have done so.

How could we conclude otherwise after learning that more tax dollars now go to immigration enforcement than to the FBI, DEA, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives combined? Last year alone, $18 billion went into immigration enforcement, according to government figures compiled by the Migration Policy Institute.

And what did we get for that $18 billion? No net change in the number of unauthorized migrants still estimated at about 11 million by the Department of Homeland Security.

Of course, that money went somewhere. Some of it did the good work of expelling real criminals from America. Much more had the main effect of separating families, terminating productive employment relationships and feeding the demand for smuggling and counterfeit documents.

“Enforcement only” is a jobs program, too. With the Obama administration’s deporting more than 400,000 people a year, it keeps people busy. Enforcement made work for government-paid detention officers, immigration judges, bureaucrats and lawyers, both DHS lawyers and deportation defenders like me.


Please! Put me out of a job! Could we please wake up, go beyond “enforcement only” and get America back to work?

The principal cause of unauthorized immigration to America is a legal immigration system that is too arbitrary, restricted and complicated for most qualified and honest immigrants to use. It’s a system that strangles the flow of authorized immigration far beyond the market’s demand for new labor.

But willing workers find a way into the country – and needy employers put them to work. At least until they get caught. Then more desperate people take their places.

Intelligent and thorough reform of the legal immigration system could dramatically reduce the demand for illegal immigration, supply the workers this economy needs for recovery and put a large chunk of that $18 billion per year to productive use.

If we demand that politicians re-create a simple, direct and economically responsive system for legal migration, it can be done. The problem is, politicians won’t lead. We, the people, must.

“Enforcement only” is a jobs program we can do without.

Hans Christian Linnartz is a Raleigh immigration lawyer and teaches Immigration and Nationality Law at Duke Law School.

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