Politics & Policy

What We Spend on Immigration Enforcement

A response to Mark Krikorian

The policy and political debates over immigration in Washington have long been contentious across the ideological spectrum, and for understandable reasons, since immigration touches on so many facets of U.S. life and policymaking.

It is highly unusual, however, for an independent, non-partisan policy-research organization to be accused of fraudulence and false findings — particularly on the basis of paper-thin evidence.

In a National Review Online column, Center for Immigration Studies executive director Mark Krikorian makes these accusations against the Migration Policy Institute regarding our recent report on immigration enforcement. At issue is how to parse, among agencies and their budgets, what constitutes immigration enforcement.

His central claim is that the report counts the entire budgets of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as money spent on immigration enforcement, though these agencies do other things as well. Setting aside Mr. Krikorian’s vituperative language, we want to answer the claim.

As Mr. Krikorian acknowledges, and as we note in the report, it is not possible to break down functions within these agencies, because the publicly available budget information does not provide the disaggregated numbers that would be required. Therefore, our calculations are limited to those agencies whose primary or dominant mission is immigration enforcement. Those are CBP and ICE, as well as US-VISIT, the principal DHS enforcement-technology initiative.

The estimates in our report can be viewed to be quite conservative, because significant additional immigration-enforcement activities are carried out by other agencies that we did not count because their primary missions are not immigration enforcement. For example, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) administers the E-Verify program, the Coast Guard interdicts migrants at sea, and the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs screens non-citizens for visa issuance.

With the birth of DHS in 2003, CBP was created to be America’s “one face at the border” — that is, to carry out all border-security functions that were previously divided among several agencies. In the post-9/11 environment, CBP is responsible both for deterring illegal immigration and for preventing the entry of contraband goods and people seeking to do the country harm. The steep increases in CBP funding have been driven by border-security imperatives, which have both immigration and customs dimensions embedded in them. For instance, to argue that the screening of arriving passengers at airports is not immigration enforcement defies common sense.

Where ICE is concerned, the agency is charged with enforcing both immigration and non-immigration statutes — in fact 400 statutes in total, the last time we reviewed it. As a result, ICE must set priorities, for example the disruption of major transnational criminal networks that commit immigration violations. But here again, the lion’s share of the agency’s funding is for immigration activities, and the main driver of ICE budget growth has been beefed-up interior immigration-enforcement efforts, particularly deportations.

In preparing our 182-page report during months of careful research, we felt it important to provide the public the full methodology and sourcing for our findings, through extensive charts, appendices, and more than 700 footnotes. By contrast, Mr. Krikorian tries to divine federal agencies’ missions and priorities from their recent press releases.

It is also disingenuous to claim that this report was driven by election results. Having worked on it for nearly two years, we would have released it regardless of who won the election. The suggestion that this is a covert political effort doesn’t pass the laugh test. 

The American public’s understanding of immigration and the need to have an honest, informed debate about how immigration policy can best serve the national interest are too important for such demagoguery.

— Doris Meissner is a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington that analyzes U.S. and international migration policy and trends.

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