Other Defense Topics:

Illegal Immigration and Border Security

The Issue

One of the federal government’s core responsibilities is to control our borders and determine who enters the United States. Regrettably, the government has consistently failed at this, leading to today’s untenable situation with over 11 million individuals unlawfully present in the U.S. Rather than enforce the law fairly and equally, the Obama Administration has worked to turn U.S. immigration laws on their head, going so far as taking executive action to provide protection from deportation, pseudo-legal status, and work authorization to as many as 5 million illegal immigrants.

Those who favor granting amnesty have tried to convince Americans to support it by claiming that their actions and comprehensive immigration reform legislation will secure the border, strengthen interior enforcement, and tighten visa policy. Yet the Administration’s recent actions indicate that it cannot be trusted to enforce existing immigration law, let alone new provisions in immigration bills: The Administration has decided unilaterally, without action by Congress—and in fact, in opposition to Congress—to stop enforcing immigration law for illegal immigrants, allowing many to legally work in the U.S., an action currently on hold by the courts. The Obama Administration has also undercut state and local efforts to assist in enforcing U.S. immigration law reducing the effectiveness of programs such as 287(g), while defending “sanctuary cities” that harbor illegal immigrants, including criminals.

The Obama Administration has moved the U.S. farther from enforcement of immigration laws and is sending an unmistakable message to the American people that it will not enforce our laws. Equally problematic, amnesty legislation sends a clear signal to the millions of illegal immigrants in the U.S. and millions of potential immigrants still in their home countries that entering and staying in the U.S. illegally is no bar to permanent residence and even citizenship if you can remain undetected until the next amnesty. This message will not stop illegal immigration; it will only encourage more, as seen by the surge of illegal immigrants and border crossings that corresponded with Congress debating amnesty and economic growth slowly increasing.

Amnesty was tried in 1986 and failed. Since then, promises of more border security and greater enforcement of immigration laws have failed to materialize. President Obama’s actions and executive orders on immigration have made it clear that any amnesty bill, even if it promises enforcement, would only result in more broken promises. Instead of solving the problem, amnesty would encourage further illegal immigration, undermine efforts to uphold the rule of law, and damage efforts to institute meaningful reforms that make it easier for immigrants and workers to come to the U.S. to help the U.S. economy grow and prosper. Importantly, amnesty could cost the U.S. trillions of dollars as those given amnesty gain access to the whole panoply of government entitlements and welfare programs, adding huge costs to these already broken programs and driving the U.S. further into debt. Furthermore, precious little attention has been paid to the important task of assimilating new immigrants so that Americans can, in the words of George Washington, “become one people.”

It is time for Congress and the Administration to stop chasing costly, harmful immigration policies and start pursuing fair and practical solutions to America’s broken immigration system and porous borders.


Maintain and Increase Efforts to Enhance Border Security. The Department of Homeland Security and Congress should explore a variety of solutions to the multiple threats faced at the border, ranging from illicit drugs to illegal migration. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and cameras and sensors, for example, would give the Border Patrol enhanced monitoring and detection capabilities. Cooperation between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement through Border Enforcement Security Task Forces and related Merida Initiative programs is essential. Congress and the Administration should also ensure that the U.S. Coast Guard has adequate vessels and personnel to fulfill its missions and prevent illegal immigration and smuggling via the sea. Critically, most of these solutions can be addressed through the normal budgeting and appropriations process.

Reject Amnesty Proposals. Granting amnesty to the millions of unlawful immigrants in the United States would encourage more illegal immigration. In 1986, Congress granted a mass amnesty to nearly 3 million unlawful immigrants and then failed to deliver on promised improvements in enforcement and border security. Rather than deterring illegal immigration, this encouraged more people to come and stay here illegally. Congress and the Administration must reject calls for amnesty and instead employ measures to discourage migrants from illegally crossing into and staying in the U.S.

Strengthen Interior Enforcement Measures in the United States. Since taking office, the Obama Administration has consistently weakened key interior enforcement measures and trampled immigration laws at the President’s choosing. The Administration has explicitly declared that most illegal immigrants in the U.S. are not enforcement priorities and will not be removed. The Department of Homeland Security attempted to give up to 5 million illegal immigrants pseudo legal status and work authorization, but was at least temporarily stopped by the courts. The Administration abandoned “Social Security No-Match,” which notified employers who hired workers whose personal information did not match Social Security records and informed them of their legal obligations; reduced or stopped enforcement actions against various classes of unlawful immigrants; and fostered changes that have undercut the 287(g) program, which allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement to train state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws. These policies undermine efforts to deter illegal immigration, essentially sending the message that once here, it is easy to find employment and stay indefinitely. Perhaps the most important thing Congress can do to stop illegal immigration is to pressure the Administration to fully enforce existing immigration laws.

Promote Economic Development and Good Governance in Latin America to Stem the “Push-Pull Effect” that Fosters Illegal Immigration. Illegal immigration results largely from the “push-pull effect” caused by the combination of stagnant economies in Latin America and the need for workers in the United States. To stem this tide, the United States should implement a market-based temporary-worker pilot program to meet the American demand for workers, giving U.S. businesses access to a reliable, rotating workforce from abroad. Such programs, including the implementation of a simplified visa system, would meet the needs of the American economy and also quell the drive for illegal immigration. Fostering free-market economic reforms in Latin America would also help to strengthen regional economic opportunities and reduce the need for individuals to seek employment abroad in order to support themselves and their families.

Facts and Figures

  • The number of illegal immigrants inside the U.S. has topped off at around 12 million. That number dropped to as low as 11 million during the recent economic recession but has now leveled off in the mid-11 million range according to best estimates and polling.
  • As of 2012, approximately 52.5 percent of illegal immigrants are from Mexico. Another 26.5 percent come from other Latin American countries, and around 21 percent come from Asia, Europe, and Africa.
  • Formal deportations, known as removals, fell to 231,000 in fiscal year (FY) 2015, down from 438,000 in FY 2013. Returns, a less punitive form of deportation, have cratered to 178,000, the lowest level since 1967. When taken together, U.S. returns and removals are at their lowest level since 1973 and only falling further.
  • Amnesty for unlawful immigrants could cost the U.S. trillions of dollars in net costs because, on average, households with lower levels of education receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes. The average unlawful immigrant household received $14,387 more in benefits than they paid in taxes in 2010.
  • As of July 2013, 16 states have active legislation granting illegal immigrant students in-state tuition benefits: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin. Four other state university systems in Hawaii, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island have also created policies for providing in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.

Selected Additional Resources

David S. Addington, “Encouraging Lawful Immigration and Discouraging Unlawful Immigration,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2786, March 27, 2013.

Steven P. Bucci and David Inserra, “The Rising Tide of Migrants and Refugees: Due Diligence and Adherence to Law Required,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4472, October 20, 2015.

Mike Gonzalez, “The Task Force on New Americans: Congress Must Examine the Federal Strategic Action Plan,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4394, April 28, 2015.

The Heritage Foundation Immigration and Border Security Reform Task Force, “Advancing the Immigration Nation: Heritage’s Positive Path to Immigration and Border Security Reform,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2813, June 14, 2013.

The Heritage Foundation Immigration and Border Security Reform Task Force, “The Senate’s Comprehensive Immigration Bill: Top 10 Concerns,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2819, June 21, 2013.

David Inserra, “Children Illegally Crossing the U.S. Border: Responding Requires Policy Changes,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4248, July 15, 2014.

David Inserra, “Ten-Step Checklist for Revitalizing America’s Immigration System: How the Administration Can Fulfill Its Responsibilities,” Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 160, November 3, 2014.

Robert Rector and Jason Richwine, “The Fiscal Cost of Unlawful Immigrants and Amnesty to the U.S. Taxpayer,” Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 133, May 6, 2013.