A common thread connecting the messages of many anti-immigration reform supporters is the notion that the US-Mexico border is a porous, lawless no man’s land through which criminals and terrorists freely flow. This underlines a policy position commonly held by elected officials, namely the general idea of an “Enforcement First” approach to immigration.
Our national discussion on immigration reflects this approach. On the right, abandoned is any mention of relief for immigrants, integrative strategies, or guest worker programs — all policy positions held by Republicans in elections past. Ronald Reagan, the folkloric hero of the GOP, for example, was quoted in a 1980 Republican primary debate saying that we ought to “open the border both ways, by understanding their [undocumented immigrants’] problems”.
Even on the more welcoming left, enforcement-focused policy is treated as a given. President Obama has made many progressive moves on the side of immigration reform, including extending relief to children of undocumented immigrants with his DACA program and the long-stalled executive order he issued in November 2014. Paradoxically, however, two million people have been deported since Obama took office, and at a rate nine times higher than twenty years ago; and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been ratcheting up raids and expedited removals of Central American refugees and child migrants in recent months.
Among the GOP presidential candidates, immigration “policies” have become spitting contests – who can build the highest, most electrified wall, arm the most Border Patrol agents, defund the most sanctuary cities, reverse President Obama’s executive orders quickest, put the most boots on the ground, and deport the most people. All but gone are constructive conversations about how it would in fact be irreparably destructive to the American economy to deport 11 million people, or how the 7.7 percent of American schoolchildren who have at least one undocumented parent will suffer through the utter trauma of losing a parent and being raised in a single parent household.
The “Enforcement First” strategy appeals to many Americans because of its emphasis on toughness and a warped sense of fairness; namely, that it is “fair” to remove people and workers who entered unlawfully because American citizens should be entitled to American jobs and resources first, not the lawbreakers. Many candidates peddle the fallacy that undocumented immigrants are moochers at best, and criminals at worst. The success of this fiction and the way it appeals to xenophobic inclinations and fears makes an “Enforcement First” approach to immigration irresistible to voters.
Perhaps this superfluity of enforcement and toughness could be legitimized if it produced tangible results, but unfortunately for immigration reform opponents, “Enforcement First” is nothing more than an empty selling point.
For the last thirty years, the bend toward “Enforcement First” has cost $186.6 billion dollars, and the number of undocumented immigrants inside American borders has ballooned to more than 11 million. Since 2003, the budgets of Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have increased two-fold and by 73 percent, respectively. The number of Border Patrol agents have doubled, and the number of ICE agents devoted to enforcement and deportation efforts have more than doubled. Deportations under President Obama have increased 23% percent from the days of his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. In fact, a Migration Policy Institute report concludes, “A significantly larger number of individuals are detained each year in the immigration detention system than are serving sentences in Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities for all federal crimes combined.”
The way the dire need for higher degrees of enforcement is discussed in this country is meant to scare voters into support. But the reality is, America’s immigration enforcement infrastructure is already distended. The U.S. is tougher than GOP candidates will have us believe, and that’s not a good thing. “Enforcement First” in a conversation about immigration policy implies “Reform Second,” but after thirty years and hundreds of billions of dollars, American immigration policy has become “Enforcement Only.” Unapologetic, inflexible conversations in which politicians are only willing to say the words “deportation” and “walls” and “security” are ones that will only lead to more of the same: exorbitant spending on ineffectual measures that have already been in place for thirty years.