U.S. Spends More on Immigration Enforcement than on FBI, DEA, Secret Service & All Other Federal Criminal Law Enforcement Agencies Combined

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Nearly $187 Billion Spent on Federal Immigration Enforcement over Past 26 Years.  The U.S. government spends more on federal immigration enforcement than on all other principal federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined, with the nearly $18 billion spent in fiscal 2012 approximately 24 percent higher than collective spending for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a new report from the Carnegie Corporation-supported Migration Policy Institute (MPI) finds.

The nation’s main immigration enforcement agencies, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), refer more cases for federal prosecution than all Justice Department law enforcement agencies.

And a larger number of individuals are detained each year in the immigration detention system (just under 430,000 in fiscal 2011) than are serving sentences in federal Bureau of Prisons facilities for all other federal crimes.

“Today, immigration enforcement can be seen as the federal government’s highest criminal law enforcement priority, judged on the basis of budget allocations, enforcement actions and case volumes,” said MPI Senior Fellow Doris Meissner, who co-authored the report, Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinery.

The 182-page report offers a detailed analysis of the current immigration enforcement system that was set in motion with passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986. The report traces the evolution of the system, particularly in the post-9/11 era, in terms of budgets, personnel, enforcement actions and technology. It examines individual programs and results, ranging from Secure Communities and 287(g) to deportations, detention, post-9/11 visa screening and new federal databases, explaining how they have intersected — in some ways by deliberate design, in others by happenstance — to create a complex, interconnected, cross-agency system.

Deportations have reached record highs, apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border fell to 40-year lows in 2011, more non-citizens than ever before are in immigration detention, and immigration enforcement has been granted new standing as a key tool in the nation’s counterterrorism strategies. 

“The facts on the ground have changed dramatically and challenge long-held public skepticism over the federal government’s will and ability to enforce the nation’s immigration laws,” said report co-author Donald Kerwin, executive director of the Center for Migration Studies and an MPI non-resident senior fellow. 

The report identifies and describes six distinct pillars around which this modern-day system is organized: border enforcement, visa controls and travel screening, information and interoperability of data systems, workplace enforcement, the intersection of the criminal justice system and immigration enforcement, and detention and removal of non-citizens.

“There has been an historic transformation of immigration enforcement into a highly resourced, robust infrastructure,” said co-author Muzaffar Chishti, director of MPI’s office in New York, based at NYU School of Law. “This modern-day system extends well beyond U.S. borders to screen visitors against multiple intelligence and law enforcement databases before they arrive and also reaches into local communities across the country via partnerships with state and local law enforcement, information sharing and other initiatives.”

Among the report’s other key findings:

  • More than 4 million non-citizens, primarily unauthorized immigrants, have been deported from the United States since 1990, with removals rising from 30,039 in FY 1990 to 391,953 in FY 2011.
  • Fewer than half of the non-citizens deported from the United States are removed pursuant to a formal hearing before an immigration judge, with the majority removed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) via its administrative authority.
  • The nearly 430,000 non-citizens detained in the immigration detention system in FY 2011 exceeded the number serving sentences in federal Bureau of Prisons facilities for all other federal crimes.
  • Immigration enforcement spending has totaled nearly $187 billion in the 26 years since IRCA ($219 billion in 2012 dollars).
  • Spending on CBP, ICE and DHS’s primary immigration enforcement technology initiative, the US Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program, reached $17.9 billion in FY 2012. In comparison, total spending for all other federal criminal law enforcement agencies (the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) stood at $14.4 billion in FY 2012.

“Changes to the immigration system over recent decades have focused almost entirely on building enforcement programs and improving their performance. Yet even with record-setting expenditures and the full use of statutory and administrative tools, enforcement alone, no matter how well administered, is insufficient to answer the broad challenges that immigration poses for America’s future,” said Meissner, who directs MPI’s U.S. Immigration Policy program and served as commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service during the 1990s. “Successive Congresses and administrations have accomplished what proponents of ‘enforcement first’ sought as a precondition for reform of the nation’s immigration policies.”

The report can be downloaded at www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/enforcementpillars.pdf.

A briefer version is available at www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/pillars-reportinbrief.pdf.

About The Migration Policy Institute

The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. For more on MPI, please visit www.migrationpolicy.org.