As the Obama administration and Congress battle on how to reduce the $1.6 trillion U.S. budget deficit, here’s a politically incorrect idea that could save billions of dollars — cut the waste in the government’s spending on immigration enforcement.
I know, I know, the mere idea of cutting immigration enforcement funds is anathema to most conservatives — and many other Americans — who think that the United States is being invaded by undocumented Latin American aliens who take away jobs, bring deadly diseases and often commit crimes.
But there is fat to be cut in immigration enforcement programs. There is growing evidence that the arrest and deportation of undocumented migrants along the U.S. border has become a big business for private detention companies, and that in many cases it hasn’t helped reduce the flow of undocumented migrants.
“Billions of dollars could be saved if government agencies better used the resources they have been allocated, and if Congress terminated wasteful or duplicative programs,” says a new study by the National Immigration Forum, a Washington, D.C., group advocating for a comprehensive immigration reform. Among the study’s conclusions:
The U.S. government deported 197,000 immigrants with no criminal records last year, at a cost of $23,000 each, or $4.5 billion a year. Instead of deporting agricultural workers and other laborers that the U.S. labor market is requiring, the U.S. government should focus on deporting migrants who have committed violent crimes, it says.
The U.S. government spends $7,500 for every apprehension on the southern border, a 500 percent increase from what it spent six years ago. Yet despite this huge spending increase, the number of border detentions has not changed much, it says.
The U.S. government has been increasing its border patrol budget by an average of $300 million a year since 2005, despite a drop in the number of people crossing the border illegally. Simply stopping the border patrol budget increases would save hundreds of millions of dollars a year, it says.
Critics of the current immigration system say that, instead of wasting money on dubious enforcement programs, we should go to the source of the problem: a system that doesn’t grant enough legal visas to match the labor market’s demand, forcing hardworking immigrants to enter the country illegally.
“We should have an immigration system that is flexible, so that when the economy grows, we can expand the number of legal immigration visas for workers,” NIF spokeswoman Katherine Vargas says.
Interestingly, growing numbers of undocumented immigrants are being held in prisons run by private detention companies, which have become a powerful lobbying group for large-scale detention of undocumented immigrants. Much like there is a U.S. “military-industrial complex,” there is an “immigration enforcement complex” that is influencing Washington’s immigration policies, critics say.
In an Oct. 28 report, National Public Radio journalist Laura Sullivan concluded after several months of researching campaign documents that the “private prison industry” helped drive Arizona’s anti-immigration laws. The NPR report cited the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison company in the country, as a key player in promoting large-scale immigrant detention bills. CCA denied any wrongdoing.
Should we keep spending increasingly more on doubtful immigration enforcement programs?, I asked Ira Mehlman, the spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, a group that wants to reduce immigration levels.
“We should spend more on enforcement, especially on worksite enforcement,” Mehlman said. “In 2007, New York City collected $554 million in fines for parking violations, while the federal government last year collected only $7 million from employers who were caught hiring illegal aliens. That tells you that we are not really making a serious effort to deter employment of illegal immigrants.”
My opinion: If President Barack Obama and Congress are seriously considering drastic cuts in public spending — including funds for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies — they should definitely cut waste in immigration enforcement spending.
At the very least, they should have a serious discussion on whether it makes sense to spend $4.5 billion in deporting people who have not committed serious crimes and do jobs that Americans don’t want to do, while slashing funds for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies whose job is to put serious criminals behind bars.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at email@example.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.