Point of View

US illegal immigration money targeted in misguided ways

April 11, 2013 

There may never be a good time to tackle immigration reform – but there’s no time like the present, either.

A booming economy like the one we largely had until 2008 produces jobs that attract determined masses of immigrants, whom an expedient politician can quickly use to assert that our borders are too porous and our laws too lax. A sluggish economy like the one we’ve endured since then, on the other hand, intensifies the competition for each available job, allowing that same politician to raise the “taking our jobs” alarm even as overall immigrant numbers ebb.

Yet, in boom times and in bust, avoiding this issue comes at a real budgetary cost. Washington is spending money on immigration programs in ways that sap our economy. As reform gains momentum in Congress, the Triangle is in a position to help reverse that circuit so that budget cuts can provide renewed energy.

That opportunity comes in the form of Congressman David Price, ranking member on the House panel that funds immigration enforcement. Price’s role gives his constituents special influence in this issue.

The economic drag imposed by our current immigration system is no secret – as recent events in the area have reminded us.

Three weeks ago, Duke hosted a conversation on immigration policies that govern foreign entrepreneurs and experts. Panelist Judith Cone, UNC-Chapel Hill’s adviser on these issues, emphasized that “universities are magnets for bringing the most talented people to America. Yet here we sit, and there are a bunch of roadblocks.” Barriers to entry for talented foreigners likewise restrict the ability of Raleigh’s high-tech firms to grow, create jobs and accelerate the economy.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are laborers who do our most physically trying work. Just over a month ago, a local forum hosted at N.C. State’s Hunt Library dug into this component of immigration. Larry Wooten, president of N.C. Farm Bureau, hammered home to participants that “this is about the economy, jobs and the ability [of farms] to stay in business.”

Less discussed is what we pay for counterproductive elements of our immigration system.

Some of those costs are institutional. Take the red tape associated with the examples above. Administering visas require people and facilities in proportion to the program’s size – in other words, an extra layer of budgetary expense incurred for each additional expert or laborer kept out of our country.

Other costs show up based on circumstance. Consider the Southeast regional Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. Last April one of its senior leaders was concerned that the office was coming up short for the year on deportations, so he sent out this instruction: “Please implement your initiatives and reallocate all available resources. The only performance measure that will count this fiscal year is the criminal alien removal [deportation] target.”

Chasing a bureaucratic target became an end in itself. Enforcement personnel worked overtime, traffic checkpoints were added and prototype initiatives were expanded. The availability of resources for a numbers game suggests that this office pushed well beyond the public’s legitimate interest in removing illegal immigrants who have become hardened criminals.

State- and local-level budgets also are vulnerable to excess. The General Assembly is set to consider legislation that could add immigration checks to the task list of local law enforcement. This effort would come on top of the federal offices of Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Citizenship and Immigration Services. All are funded by the panel on which Rep. Price sits.

Together, these examples show a pattern of money that could be saved while still fulfilling the mission. The difficulty of measuring the precise cost doesn’t make it any less real.

Matthew Leatherman, a North Carolina native, is a freelance contributor on state-level international affairs.

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