The continuing resolution, or CR, proposal unveiled by House Republicans brings in to sharp focus the conservative strategy on immigration: use the issue as a political cudgel to excite their restrictionist base while blocking all efforts to fix the system.
Conservatives have blocked progress on immigration reform for years with calls to “just enforce the law” and “secure the border first.” But the border and interior enforcement budgets have exploded and the government’s sustained commitment to immigration enforcement can no longer reasonably be questioned.
Now, by substantially cutting border security funding in their CR proposal, conservatives demonstrate that their seemingly insatiable desire for more immigration enforcement was always about politics, never about solutions. If they truly believed that more enforcement resources alone would do the trick, we suspect they would have found the money by defunding more programs that benefit women and children.
There’s no doubt that dramatic, exponential increases in resources focused on ending illegal immigration over the last 20 years have enhanced our enforcement capacities at the border and in the interior in important ways. Our southern border is far more fortified and secure—shrill claims to the contrary notwithstanding—and we currently deport more unauthorized immigrants than ever before.
That expanded enforcement infrastructure has brought tangible gains, but it has also bred more dysfunction because it was not coupled with sensible, systemic reforms. We now have three times more undocumented immigrants—5.2 percent of the workforce—than when the immigration enforcement buildup began.
Congress acquiesced to the incessant demand by immigration hawks that enforcement precede reform, and it doubled down on the enforcement strategy over the last five years by dedicating unprecedented funding to the immigration agencies. We allocated a combined $9.5 billion in fiscal year 2005 to the nation’s two primary immigration enforcement agencies, Immigration Customs and Enforcement, or ICE, and Customs and Border Protection, or CBP. By FY 2010, we had increased that appropriation by 80 percent to $17.1 billion: $5.7 billion for ICE and $11.4 billion for CBP.
The central immigration policy objective of those agencies is to prevent illegal immigration and remove immigrants who are unlawfully in the United States. An important yardstick for measuring agency success is the size of the undocumented population. The estimated number of undocumented immigrants in the country in 2005 was 11.1 million. By 2010 the estimated size of the undocumented population was 11.2 million despite the worst recession since the Great Depression.
So the agencies’ annual budgets have spiked to historic levels while the undocumented population has stabilized or slightly increased. That evidence alone should prove the policy limitations of an enforcement-only strategy. But conservatives’ posturing has repeatedly made clear that they don’t want a serious debate about policy fixes. They want to use the issue for political theater.
Conservatives drove the nation in to a distracting debate in April 2010 about border security and immigration enforcement when Arizona passed an unconstitutional immigration law and the state’s U.S. senators called for a 10-point border plan. No surprise that the Arizona governor and one of those senators were in tough reelection contests. They concluded, correctly as it turns out, that scare tactics and blaming the administration for failing to secure the border and enforce the law would energize hardliners and confuse moderates. Defenders of the law and the plan justified the necessity of the measures with blatant falsehoods and inflammatory rhetoric.
As recently as last week, Steve King (R-IA), the House Immigration Subcommittee vice chair, categorically rejected any consideration of reforms to the system unless and until the border is secured. But House Republicans ripped the transparently thin veneer of legitimacy off of that argument when they announced substantial funding cuts to border security and enforcement in the CR proposal. Their proposal cuts the Border Patrol infrastructure budget by $124 million compared to the president’s FY 2011 request and by $78 million compared to his FY 2012 budget. Further, it is a $350 million cut from appropriations dedicated to fencing and infrastructure in the current CR.
So on the one hand, conservatives continue to condemn the president’s immigration enforcement and border security efforts as lax and insufficient. On the other, they now propose funding cuts well below the president’s budget for the same. This amounts to a long overdue admission that we cannot enforce our way to lasting solutions and enhanced security.
But House and Senate Republican leaders unfortunately have signaled continued unwillingness to consider and debate comprehensive legislative reforms that could make our enforcement strategies effective while boosting economic growth. Their immigration agenda remains singularly geared toward the removal of all undocumented immigrants. But it defies reason why politicians that style themselves as pro-growth would pursue a goal of mass deportation when we know that, if successful, it would create a $2.6 trillion loss in cumulative gross domestic product over 10 years. It is especially confounding that they would continue to endorse such an unrealistic strategy when a viable, practical, (previously) bipartisan alternative that would significantly advance our economic and security interests is available and on the table.
Republican intransigence may put the broad immigration reform that our country ultimately needs politically out of reach in the near term. But one important legislative stepping stone would move us toward a lasting solution while enabling our enforcement agencies to maximize use of their resources. It couples the top-stated immigration enforcement priorities of House and Senate Republicans—universal electronic employment verification and border security enhancements—with the critical addition of a mandatory registration program that requires undocumented immigrants to pay back taxes, learn English, and earn legal status.
This idea is, of course, anathema to those conservatives who have made their political mark as immigration hardliners. But for conservatives who want to actually solve the illegal immigration problem rather than use it as a political football, these reforms would enable our enforcement agencies to train their resources on shutting down the jobs magnet and identifying, arresting, and removing criminals who mean to do us harm.
This set of reforms would help level the playing field for all workers and employers and restore the rule of law instead of continuing to invest billions of taxpayer dollars in enforcement that drives employers off the books and workers into the shadows. This approach would make our agencies far more effective, has broad national support, would address public concerns about everyone paying their fair share of taxes, help restore the rule of law, and raise wages and working conditions for all workers.
Ending illegal immigration is a national priority. But it is one that experience has shown cannot be achieved by simply throwing tens of billions of dollars at the problem. House Republicans have effectively acknowledged as much with their CR proposal.
The inescapable conclusion is that conservatives are simply unwilling to debate realistic solutions to our immigration system. They would acknowledge that their strategy of mass deportation is fiscally irresponsible and economically self-defeating if they were serious about something more than demagoguing.
Marshall Fitz is Director for Immigration Policy and Angela Kelley is Vice President for Immigration Policy at American Progress.