One of the federal government’s core responsibilities is to control the national borders and determine who enters the United States. The U.S. government has consistently failed to meet this duty, leading to today’s untenable situation with more than 11 million people living illegally in the United States. Rather than enforce the law fairly and equally, the Obama Administration turned U.S. immigration laws on their head, going so far as taking executive action to try to provide protection from deportation, pseudo-legal status, and work authorization to as many as 5 million illegal immigrants. President Trump has untied the hands of U.S. immigration officials, allowing them to carry out their duties as the law requires, though more remains to be done.
Those who favor amnesty for unlawful residents have tried to convince Americans to support amnesty by claiming that their actions and comprehensive immigration reform legislation will secure the border, strengthen interior enforcement, and tighten visa policy. When this effort failed, the Obama Administration decided unilaterally—in opposition to Congress—to stop enforcing immigration laws, allowing many illegal immigrants to work legally in the U.S. through two “deferred action” programs known as DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents) and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). The Obama Administration also undercut state and local efforts to assist in enforcing U.S. immigration law, reducing the effectiveness of programs such as 287(g) (which allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to train state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws), while defending “sanctuary cities” that harbor illegal immigrants, including criminals.
President Trump, on the other hand, promised to reverse many of these policies: He made various promises regarding a wall on the southern border and promised to increase the number of border patrol and ICE agents. His budget request reflected these promises. President Trump has also moved to expand enforcement programs, such as 287(g), and curtail funding to sanctuary cities. Under his Administration, immigration officials are once again allowed to enforce immigration laws. While criminal aliens are still the priority, other illegal immigrants no longer get a free pass. The courts stopped DAPA, which President Trump has now officially rescinded, and has announced his intention to wind down DACA over time. The result of better enforcement policies is that fewer people are trying to enter the U.S. illegally.
Of course opponents of such robust enforcement will continue to advocate for yet another amnesty. 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 measures 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 prosper and help the U.S. economy grow.
Amnesty could cost the U.S. trillions of dollars as those given amnesty gain access to the 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. President Trump has so far indicated that he intends to more faithfully execute the laws of the U.S., ranging from new policies on whom immigration officials are allowed to deport to cracking down on sanctuary cities. While this is a promising start, there are many important steps remaining.
Increase Border Barriers Where Needed. Effective border obstacles are expensive to construct and must be constantly monitored and patrolled, therefore they should be deployed only in areas where they are effective. Fencing is especially critical in areas with a low “melting point”—the time it takes for an individual to cross the border and “melt” into a landscape unnoticed. Areas along high-traffic smuggling routes are also good candidates. The building of additional infrastructure should be driven by operational requirements and can be constructed under existing law and funded through the regular appropriations process.
Focus on Technology at the Border. Regardless of which barriers are in place, the border must be patrolled. The most effective way for border patrol agents to patrol the border is to make greater use of surveillance technologies, including unmanned aerial vehicles, various camera arrays, and ground sensors. These tools allow agents to be more aware of what is occurring on the border, and then effectively respond to potential border threats and illegal crossers.
Reject Amnesty Proposals. Granting amnesty to the millions of illegal immigrants in the United States would encourage yet more illegal immigration. In 1986, Congress granted a mass amnesty to nearly 3 million people living in the country illegally, and then failed to deliver on promised improvements in enforcement and border security. Instead of deterring illegal immigration, amnesty encouraged more people to come and stay illegally. With DACA ending, there will be renewed calls for comprehensive immigration reform, which historically has meant large-scale amnesties. Congress and the Administration must reject calls for amnesty and focus on measures to discourage migrants from illegally crossing into and staying in the U.S.
Focus on Enforcement at U.S. Borders. Beyond providing security at and beyond the borders, it is essential that the U.S. focus on the enforcement of U.S. immigration law. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should use expedited removal procedures to deport illegal border crossers who simply have no claim for staying in the United States. For those who cannot be removed through expedited removal, DHS should ensure that facilities exist at the border to support the various DHS immigration-related agencies, and the immigration courts in the Department of Justice. Rather than “catching” illegal border crossers and releasing them into the U.S., the cases of illegal border crossers should be heard and adjudicated as quickly as possible at the U.S. border in order to deter future waves of illegal immigration.
Recapitalize the Coast Guard. Congress and the Administration should 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. The Coast Guard has consistently stated that $1.5 billion is the bare minimum it needs in its acquisitions account to recapitalize its fleet, though it could use upwards of $2.5 billion.
Strengthen Interior Enforcement Measures in the United States. To further deter illegal immigration, the U.S. must step up its enforcement actions against those who enter or remain in the U.S. illegally. This means allowing DHS’s ICE officers to carry out their responsibilities without political restraints, something already begun by the Trump Administration and that is showing positive results in deterring illegal entry and residence. But Congress must also enhance enforcement of immigration laws. Congress should expand the 287(g) program, and should eliminate DHS and Justice Department funds to “sanctuary” localities that attempt to interfere with federal immigration enforcement.
Increase Cooperation with Mexican and Other Latin American Governments. Cooperation between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement through existing Border Enforcement Security Task Forces and related Merida Initiative programs is essential. Similarly, the U.S. must enhance its law enforcement and security assistance to other Latin American countries to reduce instability that can drive illegal immigration.
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 go abroad in order to support themselves and their families.
Facts and Figures
FACT: Enforcement of immigration laws significantly declined under President Obama.
- In fiscal year (FY) 2016, DHS removed or returned 450,954 individuals to their home countries. In FY 2008, 1,171,058 enforcement actions occurred. The 2016 level is the lowest level of deportations since 1971.
- Most of those being deported were caught at the border, as ICE only deported 65,332 individuals from the U.S. interior in FY 2016. In 2010, ICE deported around 230,000 people from the interior of the U.S.
- The Obama Administration argued that its actions to limit immigration enforcement was driven by a lack of resources. But during this time period, resources for ICE and Customs and Border Protection did not decline, and often grew. The primary change was the new policies intended to weaken and minimize the enforcement of U.S. immigration law.
- President Trump has proved that stronger enforcement can better handle illegal immigration and deter future illegal migration. His executive order on illegal immigration, and DHS Secretary John Kelly’s departmental actions, have already chilled illegal immigration: Border apprehensions for March of 2017 were 64 percent lower than March 2016.
FACT: Illegal immigration and amnesty impose heavy costs on American society.
- The number of illegal immigrants inside the U.S. now stands around 11 million, according to best estimates and polling.
- As of July 2015, 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. State university systems in Hawaii, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island have also created policies for providing in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.
- Amnesty for illegal immigrants could cost the U.S. trillions of dollars in net costs; on average, households with lower levels of education receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes. In 2010, the average illegal-immigrant household received $14,387 more in benefits than it paid in taxes in 2010.
Selected Additional Resources
David S. Addington, “Encouraging Lawful Immigration and Discouraging Unlawful Immigration,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2786, March 27, 2013.
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, “Congress Must Re-Set Department of Homeland Security Priorities: American Lives Depend on It,” Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 175, January 3, 2017.
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.