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A Half-Decade of Immigration Enforcement and the Need for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Report from C. Stewart Verdery, Jr. discusses a half-decade of immigration enforcement and the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

A United States Border Patrol vehicle cruises between the long primary and secondary fence line in San Diego. (AP/Lenny Ignelzl)
A United States Border Patrol vehicle cruises between the long primary and secondary fence line in San Diego. (AP/Lenny Ignelzl)

Read the full report (pdf)

Download the executive summary (pdf)

Download to mobile devices and e-reders from Scribd (pdf)

Event: In Search of Secure Borders


The United States has undertaken a massive immigration enforcement initiative over the past five years. The report that follows, written by C. Stewart Verdery, assistant secretary for border and transportation security policy at the Department of Homeland Security from 2003-2005, catalogues the spectrum of measures and the breadth of enforcement resources that have been deployed during this period.

The Center for American Progress believes that strong border enforcement and tough worksite enforcement on law-breaking employers are fundamental components of a rational immigration system. That does not mean, however, that we endorse all of the enforcement tactics that have been adopted over the past five years.

Many of the initiatives that are detailed in this report reflect sensible steps to restore the rule of law. But CAP believes that others—the so-called “287g program,” for example—misallocate resources and have had a destructive effect on communities. From CAP’s perspective, initiatives like the expansion of expedited removal and mandatory detention policies also raise serious concerns of fairness, proportionality, and due process. Moreover, any massive enforcement apparatus struggles to maintain the integrity of established standards and operationalize leadership priorities. So even smartly designed enforcement policies can become deeply flawed when implemented, leading to widespread rights violations and other unintended consequences.

Irrespective of where one comes down on the wisdom of specific enforcement measures, the unprecedented commitment of resources to border and interior enforcement is inarguable. Anti-immigration agitators and politicians who seek to use immigration as a wedge issue argue that we cannot reform our legal immigration system until we have secured the border. The findings contained in this report demonstrate the untenability of this “enforcement-first” line of argument.

Further, the sustained infusion of resources into our enforcement agencies should create confidence in legitimately skeptical legislators and a frustrated public that the commitment to enforce the nation’s immigration laws is real. Those enforcement efforts, however, must be coupled with broad and systematic legal reforms to be effective in restoring order and control to our system. The enforcement will and infrastructure now exist, but we cannot enforce our way to a rational legal system. Large-scale systemic dysfunction will persist until Congress can muster the political courage to enact comprehensive immigration reforms.

CAP has articulated a set of principles that it believes should guide a legislative overhaul of our immigration system. In brief, those principles include:

  • Establish smart enforcement policies and safeguards. Meaningful reform will restore the rule of law by marrying smart workplace and border enforcement initiatives with legal reforms that embrace 21st century economic and social imperatives. Reform must restore the integrity of our borders and the legality of our workforce. Efforts in recent years to expand immigration enforcement by state and local authorities have resulted in an uneven patchwork of laws and have undermined community policing initiatives.
  • Resolve the status of those illegally present in the United States. Reform cannot restore the rule of law if it ignores the 12 million residing in the United States without legal status—to do so amounts to amnesty by inaction. It is unrealistic to suggest that the government pursue mass deportation for 12 million people; doing so would require a convoy of more than 200,000 buses that would stretch more than 1,800 miles. CAP research also estimates that mass deportation would cost nearly $300 billion over five years.
  • Create legal channels that are flexible, serve the U.S. interest, and curtail illegal immigration. Current family and employment immigration channels are rigid, cumbersome, and outdated. Reform will require dealing with the remnants of the decades of a broken immigration system by facilitating the entry of individuals with applications stuck in backlogs. But we cannot simply focus on addressing the byproducts of the current broken system and not expect new problems to arise. We must establish a 21st century system that replaces illegal immigration and unconscionable backlogs with a flexible framework that advances the nation’s dual interest in economic growth and family unity.
  • Protect U.S. workers from globalization’s destabilizing effects. Replacing undocumented immigration with regulated immigration is necessary but not sufficient to protect native U.S. workers and future immigrant workers from exploitation. Future immigrants must be afforded the full panoply of labor protections to prevent employers from playing native and foreign workers off against each other in a race to the bottom.
  • Foster an inclusive American identity. The integration of large numbers of immigrants constantly tests, and ultimately strengthens and deepens our national commitment to equality, freedom, and opportunity. The success of immigration reform over the long haul will therefore hinge on our ability to integrate current and future immigrants into the nation’s social and cultural fabric by effectively promoting English language learning, civic education, and volunteerism.

Introduction and summary

As Congress and the Obama administration consider whether the political stars are aligned to pass comprehensive immigration reform, or CIR, interested parties are revisiting the bills that were vigorously debated between 2005 and 2007, and reconsidering many of the same difficult policy decisions Congress was unable to solve. While the failure to finalize immigration legislation in 2005, 2006, or 2007 may have blocked new legalization and immigrant worker programs, the relentless push for more immigration enforcement continued and intensified. As a result, the enforcement capabilities and resources now available to law enforcement are considerably stronger than during the intense debates of the last decade.

Enforcement was a primary concern in previous immigration reform debates, and it will no doubt be a critical concern in future ones. The very first section of the 2007 bill, for example, set forth specific triggers and stated that the benefit portions of the bill could not become effective until the secretary of homeland security certified that several immigration enforcement measures had been established, funded, and were operational.

A lack of confidence in the federal government’s capacity and commitment to enforce the immigration laws helped doom the 2007 reform effort. But given the centrality of effective enforcement to the integrity of our immigration system, it is worth evaluating the Department of Homeland Security’s progress toward the 2007 bill’s benchmarks in preparation for the next comprehensive immigration debate. The benchmarks included:

  • Establishing operational control of the Mexican border
  • Expanding Border Patrol staffing
  • Constructing strong physical and electronic border barriers
  • Implementing a “catch and return” policy
  • Deploying workplace enforcement tools

This paper demonstrates how much more robust immigration enforcement has become over the last five years, with particular emphasis on the 2007 Senate bill’s benchmarks. It concludes that DHS has made great strides in meeting these benchmarks, in addition to undertaking other programs largely aimed at securing international travel but with important impacts on broader immigration enforcement as well. Yet the fact remains that an estimated 11 million unlawful immigrants continue to reside in the United States. Additional budget increases for immigration enforcement programs will not significantly reduce the size of that population absent other changes to immigration laws.

As Congress and the Obama administration deliberate policy changes regarding the undocumented population and reforms to legal immigration channels, these debates must reflect the fact that our federal agencies are far better equipped to enforce immigration laws going forward.

Some have argued that there should not be any consideration of CIR until the southern border is secure because the drug war in Mexico has escalated and led to incidents of violence on the American side of the border. The reality, however, is that there will always be criminals and inadmissible migrants seeking to take advantage of a lengthy land border. The question for policymakers is what the best strategy is to minimize violence and illegal immigration. The compelling need to fix our broken immigration system has only grown as enforcement has increased to robust levels. Waiting for an airtight border to solve our immigration problems would be an unrealistic, impractical, and unsuccessful strategy.

C. Stewart Verdery, Jr. is the founder and partner of the Monument Policy Group and former Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary for border and transportation security policy.

Read the full report (pdf)

Download the executive summary (pdf)

Download to mobile devices and e-reders from Scribd (pdf)

Event: In Search of Secure Borders

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