An immigration 'systems approach' matters deeply to US national interests

An immigration 'systems approach' matters deeply to US national interests
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It is painfully clear the Department of Homeland Security’s three immigration components — Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) — are buckling from breakdowns in performance. These governance problems span changes in administrations. As arrivals of unaccompanied children and families and, more recently, Afghan evacuees and Haitians encamped in Del Rio, Texas, demonstrate, today’s migration involves agencies beyond the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), including the departments of State, Justice, Defense and Health and Human Services. 

If immigration is to operate more effectively and adapt to address evolving challenges, it must be managed as a system within DHS, across partner agencies and by the White House. This conclusion comes from a report that I wrote with Migration Policy Institute senior fellow Doris Meissner. The report, “Toward a Better Immigration System: Fixing Immigration Governance at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security,” draws from extensive research and interviews with more than 50 individuals, including former senior DHS career and non-career staff. The report identifies four key organizational areas of concern — mission, institutional structures, funding priorities and institutional culture — essential to the vitality and governance of the U.S. immigration system.

Although many issues plaguing the immigration system are related to Congress’s failure to update immigration laws to reflect national needs, the management of DHS’s immigration components rests with the executive branch. We offer recommendations that the Biden administration could act on without congressional approval.


Much of the earlier attention on governance at DHS has centered on the need to refocus its mission. In July, for example, the Center for New American Security published a report by Carrie Cordero and Katie Galgano that observed: “Originally created primarily to prevent against and respond to acts of international terrorism on U.S. soil, DHS now has day-to-day responsibilities and activities that are, in some key places, out of sync with that original organizing objective, as well as with the modern threat landscape.” The Atlantic Council published a 2020 report recommending DHS shift to “defense of the United States against major nonmilitary threats — infectious diseases, cyber threats from hostile nation-states, threats to election security, foreign disinformation, threats to critical infrastructure from climate change, vulnerabilities from new technologies, and growing white supremacism.” And in a June 2021 report, the Center for American Progress offered recommendations centering around this approach: “DHS should strategically recalibrate its priorities around a safety and services model rather than a threat-oriented model.”

Meissner and I agree that mission statements are important and recommend that those for CBP, ICE and USCIS should be recast to encompass the complex mix of enforcement, economic and humanitarian responsibilities with which each component is charged. These statements should be used to drive the components’ visioning, policy development, budget requests, resource allocations, operational strategies and recruitment and training. The statements should include concepts such as adapting to rapidly changing migration dynamics; exercising discretion; treating immigration as an asset to the country; providing protection to those in need; facilitating the ability of those eligible for immigration benefits to obtain them; fair and timely decision-making; protecting civil rights and privacy; cooperation and collaboration with other federal, state, local and international agencies; professionalism; and respect for the dignity of all persons. 

Yet, new mission statements are not sufficient to address immigration governance breakdowns.

To do so, DHS must strengthen and institutionalize its intra-agency policy development, resource allocation, policy decision-making and crisis management processes and coordination among CBP, ICE and USCIS. The DHS chain of command and coordination capabilities have not been strong enough to counteract the centrifugal forces of better-resourced, singular operations (e.g., prioritizing border security and immigration detention over legal immigration functions).

Vesting broad cross-cutting authority in the DHS undersecretary for strategy, policy and plans and the assistant secretary for border and immigration policy is one way the Biden administration could move toward an immigration “systems approach.” Tasking the undersecretary for management — in consultation with the undersecretary for strategy, policy and plans, and the three immigration component heads — to establish a standing process for coordinated budget development and planning aimed at right-sizing the budgets of the immigration components can also advance an immigration systems approach. 

An interagency standing deputies committee led by the National Security Council and/or Domestic Policy Council should be established to coordinate cross-departmental policy development and implementation of immigration priorities. Although DHS is the lead agency for immigration functions, strengthened support and leadership at the White House level is needed. 

Immigration is a system that spans both intra-DHS and interagency organizational entities and processes. It must operate as a system to successfully carry out its duties. An ambitious vision for the role immigration can play in America’s future is deeply connected to U.S. national interests.

Ruth Ellen Wasem is a professor of policy practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas in Austin, and a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. She has testified before Congress about asylum policy, legal immigration trends, human rights and the push-pull forces on unauthorized migration. Follow her on Twitter @rewasem.