Aliens vs. Bureaucrats

Our costly, record-breaking system for dealing with illegal immigrants


If Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is elected president, she promises to install two security fences wherever the land of the free meets the land of the willing-to-work-for-less-than-minimum-wage. And just in case you doubt Bachmann's commitment to redundancy, she says this double shot of steel-and-concrete contraception will cover "every mile, every foot, every inch" of our border with Mexico. Another GOP hopeful, Newt Gingrich, is doubling down on a border fence too, and like Bachmann he promises to complete it by 2013. 

You can understand the urgency. In fiscal year 2011, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended just 340,252 illegal immigrants, a mere 20 percent of its catch in 2000, when the agency nabbed 1,676,438. It was the lowest total for alien snatching since 1971. In April 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported that parts of the border have gotten so tranquil that agents are "encouraged to walk around or take coffee breaks" to keep from nodding off on the job. By 2014 there might not be enough aspiring day laborers to justify even one fence, much less two.

Which of course means there's a good chance two fences will get built, and possibly three. The war on illegal immigration is characterized by chronic uncertainty; no one knows exactly how many illegal immigrants reside in the U.S. or precisely what causes their numbers to wax and wane. What is clear, however, is that eliminating illegal immigration creates more and more bureaucratic infrastructure. 

Currently there are two main agencies that deal with illegal immigration, both divisions of the Department of Homeland Security. One is U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). With 58,000 employees, including 43,600 sworn federal agents and officers, CBP is the largest federal law enforcement agency. In less than a decade, its budget has nearly doubled, from $5.9 billion in fiscal year 2003 to $11.9 in FY 2012. In FY 2011 it devoted $3.5 billion just to border enforcement. The U.S. Border Patrol, a component of CPB, has grown fivefold since 1992, from 4,139 agents to about 21,444 in 2011.

The other bureaucracy is U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). With more than 20,000 employees, ICE is the federal government's second largest investigative agency. It has an annual budget of more than $5.7 billion, up from $3.3 billion in FY 2003. In FY 2003 it had the capacity to detain 18,500 illegal aliens on any given day. Today, operating six detention facilities of its own and renting space from approximately 250 state and local jails, it can house 33,442.

In concert with the declining number of Border Patrol apprehensions, which the agency attributes to more manpower, better monitoring technologies, and the 650 miles of fence that already exist, annual deportations are going up. In October, ICE announced it had given the boot to 396,906 illegal immigrants in FY 2011, "the largest number in the agency's history." It must have been an easy press release to write, as the agency has been fine-tuning it for years now. In 2010 ICE announced it had removed "more illegal aliens [that year] than in any other period in the history of our nation." The year before was record setting too, as were 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, and 2003. According to the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Immigrant Statistics (OIS), 2002 was the only year since 1992 that the federal government failed to set a new record for illegal alien removals.

Under President Barack Obama's direction, ICE has removed 1,179,313 illegal aliens in three years. George W. Bush presided over 2,012,539 removals during his eight-year reign. Despite this expensively enforced exodus of more than 3 million individuals since 2000, the estimated number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. hasn't changed much. The OIS reports that this population peaked at 11.8 million in 2007, dropped to 10.8 million in 2009, and stayed at 10.8 million in 2010. According to many experts, the drop-off from 2007 to 2009 was due in large part to the recession rather than enforcement efforts. With fewer American jobs available, fewer immigrants have chosen to make the increasingly arduous journey here. 

Sinking Mexican fertility rates may also play a role. In 1960 the average number of births per woman in Mexico was 6.8. By 1990 that number had dropped to 3.4, and in 2011 it's down to 2.3. Soon there won't be enough young Mexicans to fill all the jobs in Mexico, much less in America. But 2012 is an election year, and long- shots such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Bachmann can't afford to let nature take its course. The former is promising to "detain and deport every illegal alien who is apprehended in this country." The latter is a little more judicious. "It is almost impossible to move 11 million illegal immigrants overnight," she told radio host Laura Ingraham in November. "You do it in steps."

Forget moving 11 million illegal immigrants overnight. During the last three years, Obama has demonstrated that it's damned hard to move just 400,000 illegal immigrants out of the country over the course of 365 days. Even with the costly expansion of CPB and ICE, the system is under strain. While illegal immigrants do not enjoy the same due process afforded to U.S. citizens, they do have some legal recourse. When CPB or ICE apprehends someone who may be an illegal immigrant, he is entitled to his day in one of the nation's 53 immigration courts. In the end, the most crucial component of the war on illegal immigration isn't border fences or surveillance cameras; it's paperwork.

So while ICE has been achieving record numbers of deportations, its enforcement efforts have set other records as well. According to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research organization affiliated with Syracuse University, the number of deportation cases awaiting resolution reached an all-time high of 297,551 on September 30; the average wait time was 489 days. Not surprisingly, ICE didn't issue a press release to celebrate this milestone.

One result is that the federal government is running up huge tabs housing detainees waiting for hearings. According to the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration advocacy organization, the "current cost to detain an immigrant is approximately $166 per day." To save space and money, ICE releases thousands of suspected illegal immigrants on their own recognizance each year while they wait for their day in court. Many, unsurprisingly, vanish long before their hearings occur. Consequently, unexecuted deportation orders "have increased from 558,000 to 1.1 million" during the last three years, according to Mark Metcalf, a former immigration judge now affiliated with the Center for Immigration Studies, an advocacy organization that wants to tighten current immigration policies. This is another record-breaking statistic that ICE has little interest in trumpeting.

Last summer the Department of Homeland Security formed a joint committee with the Department of Justice to review all pending immigration cases with the intent of weeding out "low priority" deportations and thus reducing the backlog. Meanwhile, ICE and the private companies it contracts with are busy building new facilities. The GEO Group, for example, is building a 650-bed jail at a cost of $70 million in Adelanto, California, and a 600-bed jail for $32 million in Karnes City, Texas.

Such measures will merely help better process the current load of 400,000 deportees a year, which represents just 3.7 percent of the 10.8 million illegal immigrants. If Bachmann, Gingrich, and Perry want to surpass Obama's record-setting enforcement efforts, a double fence is just a start. We will also need an exponential increase in CBP and ICE personnel, detention facilities, courtrooms, and judges. According to a March 2010 study by the liberal Center for American Progress, it would cost $285 billion to remove 11 million illegal immigrants in five years.

That's a hefty price tag, and it doesn't even address the ongoing costs of maintaining the supersized agencies and institutions that would persist once the purge was completed. Federal employees are even harder to remove than illegal immigrants once they've gained a foothold. But who knows? After they've vanquished every unauthorized worker in the land and have nothing left to fill their hours, maybe immigration-enforcement bureaucrats will be willing to pick strawberries.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.