Tough talk on immigration comes with huge credit card bill

In just the last four years, spending on border security has ballooned to more than $50 billion—an unprecedented amount billed to the American taxpayers that is neither justified nor properly accounted for.  Annual spending by Customs and Border Protection has more than doubled since 2005, from $5.4 billion to more than $11 billion this year.  The Border Patrol’s budget alone is now more than $3.5 billion—nearly ten times what it was in the mid-1990s—even though illegal crossings have dipped below 1972 levels due, in large part, to a faltering economy.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s annual budget has grown exponentially and it is now a $5.4 billion agency with an Enron-league accountability problem—it has repeatedly failed to adhere to its publicly stated policy of focusing resources on deporting criminals and dangerous threats.  As a result, enormous sums of money are spent detaining and deporting immigrants who pose no threat.  Last year, more non-citizens were deported than ever before and more than half of them had no criminal history.  This is not cheap; for every immigrant it deports, the federal government charges taxpayers $23,000!

Just to hold immigrants in detention now costs the taxpayers an average of $122 per detainee per day, for a grand total of $2 billion a year—and this money is feeding a growing for-profit detention industry that lobbies local governments and Congress to adopt policies that will send even more people to jail to pad its bottom line at the expense of the American taxpayer. 

As the price soars every year, taxpayers get stuck with a  bad investment.  For example, apprehensions at the border, a gauge of how many people are trying to cross illegally, have been declining for years—yet some politicians in Washington demand ever more spending on border enforcement. As a result, the average cost per apprehension on the border has increased 500% in just five years. This is unjustifiable.

Some in Congress claim that the Obama Administration has done little to enforce our immigration laws and that our borders are “out of control.”  The fact is, in 2010, the government deployed more enforcement agents to the border than at any time in our history and carried out more deportations than ever before.  The insistence that we continue to enforce the same dysfunctional rules comes with a big price tag—paid for by adding to our debt.

It is time to fix the underlying problem—the absurd, outdated, and nonsensical laws that masquerade as an immigration “system.”  The last Congress—like the Congress before it and the one before that—failed to successfully grapple with the problem of our broken immigration system.  If this Congress is serious about trimming the deficit, they’ll take a different approach.

If immigrants had a functional system to enter our country legally, more would go through the system rather than around it.   We could then reexamine the need to spend $11 billion and more, year after year, on border enforcement.  By fixing the immigration system, Congress could save taxpayers more than $4.5 billion per year if we stopped deporting immigrants who would otherwise be law-abiding taxpayers themselves if allowed to stay. 

As a bonus, these new taxpayers would add an estimated $1.5 trillion of value to the economy over a ten-year period.  Small businesses would be able to focus on creating jobs and rebuilding our economy, not be forced to act as unfunded immigration enforcement agents.  If the immigration system were fixed, our enforcement agents and supporting technological resources could focus on drug, weapons, human trafficking and security risks.  A national immigration strategy that made taxpayers out of everyone would lead to smarter enforcement targeting and smarter spending.

A fiscally responsible Congress must take two steps: eliminate waste and duplication in the enforcement system, and generate new revenue by making sure all immigrants and all employers are made into taxpayers. 

Ali Noorani is the Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, a non-partisan immigrant advocacy organization based in Washington, DC.