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With enforcement tightened, time for immigration reform

You’ve heard and read the response so many times by now that you can probably recite it yourself. It goes something like this:

“Republicans will consider basic immigration reform only after this administration commits to an ‘enforcement-first’ approach to close the border and enforce our laws.”

But what would this “enforcement-first” approach look like? How would we know that it was being implemented?

Would it look something like this, as described by Roll Call?

“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.

Again, we spend considerably more on enforcement of immigration laws than we spend on the FBI, ATF, Secret Service and DEA combined.

Other numbers in the report (available here) and elsewhere confirm what the raw spending data suggest:

– Five years ago, 291,000 illegal immigrants were deported, and 35 percent of them had criminal records. In 2012, the number of deportations rose to a record 410,000, more than half of whom had criminal records. In other words, enforcement dollars are being used more aggressively and with a tighter focus on those actually causing problems.

– According to the report, “Border Patrol staffing, technology, and infrastructure have reached historic highs, while levels of apprehensions have fallen to historic lows.” The low level of apprehensions is a sign of progress, indicating that fewer and fewer people are even trying to immigrate illegally. In fact, today “there is no net new illegal immigration from Mexico for the first time in 40 years.”

– The rapid decline in illegal border crossings means that “an increasing share of the unauthorized population is likely to be comprised of those who have been admitted properly through ports of entry and overstay their visas. As a result, the relative share of the unauthorized population from countries other than Mexico and Central America will likely increase.”

According to the report, the additional resources, commitment and focus have produced “an historic transformation of immigration enforcement and the emergence of a complex, modernized, cross-governmental immigration enforcement system that projects beyond the nation’s borders and and at the same time reaches into local jails and courtrooms across the United States to generate an unparalleled degree of enforcement activity. The stem’s six pillars have been resourced at unprecedented levels and a panoply of enforcement mandates and programs have been implemented that demonstrate the federal government’s ability and will to enforce the nation’s immigration laws.”

Personally, I think a successful “enforcement-first” policy would look very much like the program outlined above. With that condition having been met — although more progress can and should continue to be made — it’s now time to move forward on other elements of basic immigration reform.

– Jay Bookman

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