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Building a wall to keep away people that you don’t want near is a deep-seated human instinct. The Great Wall of China was built more than 2,000 years ago as a defense against nomadic raiders. Hadrian’s Wall was built in northern England, beginning in 122 A.D., to mark the northern frontier of the Roman Empire.
So the current focus of the American public and policymakers on U.S. border security and immigration law enforcement (mostly with Mexico) as the most important and urgent component of immigration reform has significant historical precedent.
But that doesn’t mean human attempts at border and immigration enforcement are always well-informed or effective.
A new report from the Migration Policy Institute finds that the United States “spends more on immigration enforcement than on FBI, DEA, Secret Service, and all other federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined.” Immigration enforcement spending was $18 billion in 2012. Over the past 26 years, in an era of increased immigration and border enforcement, spending totaled $187 billion.
There are now about 21,000 Border Patrol agents overseeing motion sensors, aerial drones, radiation monitors, and other technological resources – all with the aim of fulfilling the public’s goal of “controlling the border.”
But during most of the buildup of border enforcement, unauthorized immigration surged alongside spending. Its peak came around 2000, a year when the Border Patrol reported 1.7 million arrests.
Since then, unauthorized immigration has fallen, particularly once the Great Recession started. While increased immigration enforcement played a role in this decrease, most experts cite the lack of jobs in the U.S. economy and improved economic conditions and demographics in Mexico as the major reasons for the drop in undocumented immigration.
The evidence indicates that border enforcement will never be totally effective in stopping unauthorized immigration -- no matter how much we spend on it. Why? Because in spite of the public’s demand to “seal the border,” up to half of all unauthorized immigrants don’t sneak across, under, or over the border. They drive through it or fly over it legally and arrive in the United States with valid visas, which they then overstay. In 2006, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that 45 percent of all unauthorized immigrants arrived in the United States legally. And, of course, border enforcement efforts simply don’t affect this group.
Unauthorized immigration is all about jobs – poverty and lack of job opportunities in Mexico, and (before the Great Recession) an abundance of low-skill jobs in the United States. For the group of immigrants who enter the country illegally, the deprivation they face at home means that if there’s a job in the United States, they’ll find a way to get here.
Instead of continuing to focus almost exclusively on a strategy with a marginal payoff – border enforcement – there are additional tools that policymakers should consider to help rationalize the immigration system:
1) Over the long term, a Mexico and Central America with less poverty and economic inequality will generate fewer unauthorized immigrants. The United States should target immigrant-sending regions with international development assistance that helps create economic opportunities at home, so that the need to leave to feed one’s family doesn’t arise in the first place.
2) In the shorter term, a guest worker program that allows foreign workers to come to the United States and then return to their home countries would help meet the labor force needs of the rebounding U.S. economy without relying on illegal entries. A program that respects the rights of guest workers and the labor needs of U.S. employers could have benefits for the sending nations, the workers, and the U.S. economy.
The majority of Americans believe in a humane and fair immigration system. Immigration enforcement certainly has a place in immigration reform discussions. But a continued focus on a border enforcement-only policy is neither cost-effective nor humane.
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