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New Study Details Billions of Dollars Wasted In Immigration Enforcement

The National Immigration Forum, a well-respected, non-partisan organization based in Washington, D.C., has published its most recent study of national immigration

enforcement policies, entitled, “The Math of Immigration Detention: Runaway Cost for Immigration Detention Do Not Add Up to Sensible Policies.”

The publication highlights what the organization calls the “exorbitant spending wasted on detaining hundreds of thousands of immigrants annually,” and the little-known fact that immigration enforcement in all of its forms now devours more federal money than all of the rest of the federal law enforcement community combined.  The principal question raised by the study is what the U.S. is getting for all of this money.

Like many other well-intended federal policies, immigration enforcement started off small.  Despite the fact that it was an open secret that millions of undocumented aliens worked in the United States, there was little pressure to rein in this human migration. American businesses need cheap labor to work in the fields, factories, and in other menial vocations. Deportations were rare, and confinement of the undocumented even rarer, except along the southern border with Mexico.  The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) charged with enforcing immigration policy at that time was the poor stepchild of the Justice Department, and worked from cramped quarters, had limited funding, and was staffed with employees often looking to transfer to more glamorous law-enforcement assignments.

All of that changed after 9/11. INS was merged into the newly-created Department of Homeland Security, (DHS), and became a bureaucratic monster with a new name, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or “ICE.”.  No appropriation request was denied the new administrative behemoth entrusted with preventing another terrorist attack on the American homeland, and insulating Congressmen and Senators on both sides of the aisle from the charge that they were “soft” on terror.

The awkward stepchild has grown too big to ignore, and there are many unanswered questions that this study attempts to address. Deportations, which numbered around 20,000 annually in the 1990’s now top 400,000 per year. More people are detained each year by ICE than are housed in the entire Federal Bureau of Prison (BOP). Almost $2 billion has been appropriated for Fiscal Year 2013 for immigration detention, which amounts to $5.4 million per day.

What has the American public received for all of this money?  For one, a new and financially healthy private prison industry, where private prison operators like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) earn huge profits from incarcerating non-violent immigration “offenders” in conditions more appropriate to violent criminals.

Although the study does not go into the subject, the “recycling” of public employees who once worked in corrections into CCA and other private prison operations is a common occurrence.  Wives of former federal officials hold large ownership positions in companies that supply clothing, food, and toiletries to the prison industry, both public and private.

What America has also gotten proves once again that the law of unintended consequences if alive and well.  Most of the detained locked up by ICE are non-violent individuals, often the spouses or parents of citizens, who are ripped from their familial setting and communities after being stopped for a traffic violation or being caught up in one of the “sweeps” that ICE has been criticized for.  Obviously, the study says, no one objects to violent felons being detained and deported, but up until recently ICE treated both categories of detainees the same.

There are encouraging signs that this recent trend towards concentrating on violent offenders will become permanent governmental policy.  According to the study, “ICE has attempted to shift enforcement practices away from haphazard and sweeping methods, to more targeted efforts focused on individuals who removal is a high priority for the agency.  This is a smart and needed shift.”  Clearly, the nation and its borders are not safer because of millions of dollars spent to arrest and detain undocumented individuals who might have been originally arrested for a traffic offense.

The study concludes with a recommendation for more accountability by the Federal Government, given the fragile state of the economy, on prioritizing the resources devoted to border control and enforcement.  As the study says, “the numbers behind immigration detention simply do not add up to sensible policy.”

Source: “The Math of Immigration Detention,” National Immigration Forum, August 2012.

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