Congress and the administration are focused almost exclusively on catching, detaining, and deporting people who break immigration laws, rather than fixing the system itself and easing the pressures that drive people across our borders.
The U.S. is wasting money, enriching private prison corporations, terrorizing border communities, racially profiling immigrants and U.S. citizens, tearing families apart, and abrogating Constitutional protections.
The Cost of Enforcement
Congress has done little to change the legal immigration system since 1990—except to beef up enforcement. The results:
- We’re spending more money. The border patrol’s budget has increased more than 10-fold in the last 25 years. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spending has increased by 85 percent since its beginning in 2003. That money is spent to hire more agents; detain more people; and create barriers and surveillance at the border, through drones and other means. Meanwhile, over the past 20 years, the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has increased.
- We aren’t making our communities safer. ICE is arresting more people—but more and more of those arrests are for non-violent or non-criminal activity. Focusing on arresting immigrants, no matter the severity of their violation, diverts resources from broader law enforcement efforts.
- We’re increasing fear and suspicion among all immigrants. As enforcement raids have increased and more people are at risk of immediate deportation, fear in immigrant communities has grown. Even if an individual is in the country legally, they could be challenged if they “look like” an immigrant—and have their status revoked for any violation of any law. As a result, immigrants are increasingly reluctant to engage with authorities in any way. A 2017 report found that 78 percent of immigrant survivors of trafficking, assault, or domestic violence were concerned about contacting the police, often citing fear of deportation.
- We’re failing to honor the inherent dignity of immigrants. About 70 percent of immigrants who get caught in the enforcement system are mandatorily detained, regardless of circumstance. Immigration detention facilities are routinely cited for inhumane conditions.
- Our country’s immigration system puts punishment ahead of compassion and even effectiveness, measuring success in the number of people arrested and deported and the number of beds filled in detention centers. This is the wrong approach.
Changing the System
Improving the legal immigration system will reduce the need for heightened enforcement. Reforms in family visas that allow loved ones to immigrate legally and create affordable, accessible, and expedient naturalization and citizenship processes would enable more people to immigrate legally who right now are circumventing the law.
Congress can also pay more attention to the impact of other U.S. policies on migration. Foreign policies that build peace and prevent violence, and economic policies that help workers support their families, reduce the incentives to move in search of work or safety.
Even without these large-scale changes, the U.S. can control its borders in ways that don’t terrorize communities and do uphold the responsibility to care for those seeking refuge and asylum. Congress can insist on rigorous oversight over immigration detention and enforcement to reduce racial profiling and ensure that immigrants who are detained are held in humane conditions. Congress can diversify the consequences for immigration violations beyond detention and deportation. Judges can regain the power to consider mitigating circumstances and character in making immigration decisions. More immigrants can have the opportunity to find a place in this country and pursue citizenship.
The cost of the current enforcement-only approach is too high. We need to create a system that puts at its center concern for the safety and value of each person affected by immigration.