Many congressional Republicans have long insisted that tougher enforcement should be the first step of any immigration law overhaul. But a report released Monday finds that the federal government already spends more on immigration enforcement every year than it does on all of its criminal law enforcement agencies combined.
The United States spent nearly $18 billion on immigration enforcement in fiscal 2012, about 24 percent more than it spent collectively on the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Secret Service and all other criminal law enforcement agencies, according to the 182-page report by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
“From the standpoint of resource allocations, case volumes and enforcement actions ... immigration enforcement can be seen to rank as the federal government’s highest criminal law enforcement priority,” the study says.
In 1986, by contrast, when Congress passed the last sweeping overhaul of immigration laws, immigration enforcement amounted to less than 20 percent of the budget for criminal law enforcement agencies, said Doris Meissner, a co-author of the report and a former immigration commissioner under President Bill Clinton.
“This is a historic reversal,” Meissner said, adding that spending surged after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which she said “embedded national security into every aspect of immigration enforcement.”
The study comes as Congress is preparing to debate a comprehensive immigration overhaul for the first time since 2007, when the last such effort collapsed.
President Barack Obama, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have all said they intend to put immigration on the agenda in the 113th Congress. Interest groups representing a broad variety of constituencies have lined up behind the effort, and bipartisan working groups are meeting privately in both chambers to discuss areas of possible compromise.
The Migration Policy Institute report does not make policy recommendations to Congress ahead of the coming debate. Instead, it analyzes what Meissner characterized as the one major area of agreement between Democrats and Republicans on immigration policy over the past quarter-century: the need for more enforcement.
“There really has been one element of immigration policy that’s been a source of support across the board for a very long time, and that has been strengthened enforcement, especially border enforcement and deportations and removals,” Meissner said.
The study lists several notable examples of how explosively immigration enforcement has grown in recent decades. For instance, it notes, more than half of all criminal prosecutions brought in federal courts are now for immigration-related crimes.
In addition, it says, the two primary immigration enforcement agencies — Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — refer more cases to U.S. attorneys for prosecution than all of the Justice Department’s law enforcement agencies combined.
One prominent conservative voice on immigration, Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, on Monday criticized the report’s methodology, saying that it lumped money spent on customs enforcement together with money spent on immigration enforcement without distinguishing between the two.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.