The United States has long underfunded its border and immigration control system. Given the huge number of people who try to enter the country illegally or overstay their visas each year, that lack of resources means the government needs thousands more officers, more immigration courts and judges, and a rational system to house and track immigrants while their status is adjudicated.
Instead, we have a broken system that catches immigrants at the border and then releases them into the country with almost no means of finding them later. (This, of course, would not include people who live here with asylum claims.) And we have no means to prevent employers from hiring them while they wait, allowing them to support themselves and their families even if there is a court order for their deportation.
The sorry state of our immigration enforcement system is obvious to all. The administration says nearly 1.1 million people are currently subject to a final deportation order. Less than 15,000 are detained by ICE. The other million-plus are living, and many of them are working, in the United States. Finding a needle in a haystack would be child’s play compared with finding that many people in a country as large as the United States.
There are only about 6,000 ICE agents trained to conduct deportation arrests within the United States. Each agent would have to arrest about one immigrant every other day to deport the entire population of undocumented immigrants with final deportation orders within a year. They currently average 7,000 deportations each month, or a little more than one deportation per officer per month.
As Napoleon once said: “If you start to take Vienna, take Vienna.” But that implies one has an army large enough to take and hold it. ICE would be lucky to take a small, unguarded town in the Alps.
There is so much we could do if we were serious about enforcement. Dramatically increasing the number of ICE agents by a factor of 10 or more is a first step. Expanding the number of immigration courts and judges who hear deportation cases is another. Building many more detention centers that could hold immigrants arriving illegally is a third. None of this is rocket science; all of it requires will and money.
We could implement other, more creative steps, too. Our prison systems have long employed probation and parole networks to control the size of the prison population. People subject to these systems must report to an officer on a regular basis and keep that officer apprised of their residence at all times. Roughly 4.5 million people are supervised under either system. Many people already check in regularly with ICE. Why can’t something similar be instituted for all immigrants who are released in the country while they await court hearings?
Immigration hard-liners might insist on something more draconian. Australia does not permit immigrants arriving illegally by boat to stay within its borders. Instead, they are sent to offshore island detention centers for processing. This policy has predictably been condemned by forces on the left and by immigration rights advocates. But it has effectively eliminated illegal arrivals by boat, and the conservative government that implemented it has been reelected twice.
If that’s too strong for some, what about mandatory ankle monitors for immigrants here illegally who are released inside the country? ICE is already doing this on a small scale; more than 35,000 immigrants in 2018 were assigned ankle monitors that allowed GPS to track their location 24/7. This would cost a lot, but would likely be cheaper in the long run than the labor-intensive approach of hiring thousands of agents. It would also allow a degree of certainty for immigrant and law enforcement alike: Both know the immigrant can be easily arrested if their request for asylum or legal status is denied.
Then there’s the elephant in the immigration enforcement room: E-Verify. One million-plus undocumented immigrants aren’t living in this country on charity. Most are working somewhere, which means hundreds or perhaps thousands of employers are breaking the law, too. Mandatory use of E-Verify would put a stop to this, and it would further reduce the incentive for people to risk breaking the law by coming here in the first place.
The fact that we have placed such an intense focus on a border wall instead of any or all of these options demonstrates just how unserious we remain about immigration. Building a border fence or “wall” probably would reduce the number of people who get into the country in the first place. But it would do nothing about the status of people who do get in. They would still be released into the country to seek out employers who are willing to not ask questions, and the government would still have little ability to find them again.
“Wall or deal” seems to be the only options our leaders want to discuss. But without making enforcement a serious priority, neither wall nor deal will create and immigration system that works.