The Failure of an Enforcement-Only Approach to Immigration
Immigration, and Social Justice
Instead of creating a path to citizenship for 11 million aspiring Americans, we’ve built a colossal, expensive, and ineffective deportation apparatus that breathes new life into America’s prison industrial complex.
For decades, American politics and its institutions have fixated on stringent border policies, stoked fears around undocumented immigrants as criminals, and insisted we expel them from the country—no matter the cost. This approach has not only failed, it has made the problem more intractable by creating perverse incentives for private actors, paradoxically leading undocumented immigrants to deepen their ties to the United States, and eroding public trust by increasing the presence of unaccountable law enforcement in communities. This is all the foreseeable and inevitable byproduct of our government’s refusal to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Although COVID-19 has helped illuminate both the profound dysfunction of our immigration system and the Trump Administration’s myopic fixation on enforcement, neither is new. While Trump cruelly exploits the system, he didn’t create it. He inherited a rigid, failing immigration system that hasn’t been updated in three decades. And he inherited a sprawling immigration enforcement apparatus more costly than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined.
The United States spends more on immigration enforcement than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined.
One of the most pernicious elements of this apparatus are the private prison operators, who lobby for anti-immigrant policies, make substantial contributions to politicians who champion those policies, and depend on government contracts for roughly half of their profits. The result is a symbiotic relationship between anti-immigrant politicians who stymie pathways to citizenship while pushing increasingly punitive measures and the companies seeking to profit by incarcerating human beings.
From 2000 to 2016, the immigrant detainee population in for-profit prisons increased by 442%. In Trump’s 2020 budget, he requested funding for 54,000 detention center beds. ICE spends well over a hundred dollars per person per day on each immigrant that fills those beds, when alternatives to detention cost an average of less than five dollars a day. The profitability of each day in detention creates an incentive not just to detain more people, but to detain them for longer; the average length of detention is over a month, although some immigrants remain behind bars for years.
The increasingly entrenched economic incentives of immigration enforcement and detention have made it harder to reform or scale back the system. People’s livelihoods are tied to the continued existence and villainization of the undocumented. The two largest private prison companies (CoreCivic and GEO Group) made a combined $1.3 billion last year. The personal donations of both CEOs to the GOP this election cycle total over $500,000; an additional $2 million in donations have been made by associated individuals and organizations. Immigration enforcement can no longer be seen as a rational policy response to a problem, it has become a self-perpetuating industry designed to generate profits and grow inexorably.
This dysfunctional and parasitic incentive structure does not need to exist—creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants would end their ruthless criminalization and revoke the justification for an endless expansion of enforcement resources. No matter how much money we pour into the deportation apparatus in the meantime, it will not solve unauthorized migration. The zeal with which DHS has pursued its enforcement mandate has been matched by Congress’s enthusiasm in spending jaw dropping sums of taxpayer dollars—$381 billion on immigration and border enforcement over the last 17 years. That lust to punish has been poorly rewarded with a negligible impact on the number of undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Rather than driving people to leave, single-minded enforcement has reinforced stasis: people have built lives, families, and businesses here; and they know that if they leave, it will be exceedingly hard—and costly—to return.
One of the most pernicious elements are the private prison operators, who lobby for anti-immigrant policies, make substantial contributions to politicians who champion those policies, and depend on government contracts for roughly half of their profits.
During the pandemic, that reality has only intensified: deportations continue while more extreme exclusion policies emerge from old drafts of xenophobic executive orders given new legitimacy during the crisis. The borders are sealed for all nonessential travel, asylum seekers are turned away without due process, and the President issued an executive order suspending diversity visas, most family-based visas, and some employment-based visas. In short, enforcement efforts have ramped up while legal avenues have continuously been siphoned off. The result is an expansive, deeply rooted undocumented population consigned to the societal margins of the country they call home, where fear is the only constant.
That ubiquitous fear feeds into a larger system that devastates communities of color writ large.
The 287(g) and Secure Communities programs employ local law enforcement and public officials as ICE agents—a practice that dates back to 1996 but grew substantially after the 9/11 attacks. These agreements invite racial profiling, contribute to bloated police budgets, and undermine already fraught relationships between law enforcement and Black and Brown communities. The practice exemplifies how immigration enforcement contributes to the disproportionate monitoring, policing, and jailing of people of color.
While the experiences and systems are not the same, we can’t ignore the larger context of a carceral system that jails Black men at more than five times the rate of White men. For Black immigrants, the entanglement of immigration enforcement and local police poses twin threats. The school-to-prison pipeline feeds seamlessly into the deportation pipeline:
Black immigrants account for just seven percent of the noncitizen population but 20 percent of those in deportation proceedings on criminal grounds.
As we move to abolish a carnivorous immigration detention system, it must be part of a larger conversation about mass incarceration and structural racism. Both police and ICE agents commit acts of violence with impunity; both operate within institutions that profit off of the surveillance and incarceration of people. These deeply entrenched systems have a ruthless economy of their own, and even the introduction of a contagious virus failed to interrupt the cycle. The surveillance and over-policing of Black and immigrant neighborhoods ultimately populates carceral systems that are built to encourage overcrowding—the more people, the more profit—and so it is no surprise that coronavirus razed these facilities.
Before the pandemic, the number of immigrants in detention had reached an all-time high under Trump. And detention is a political and financial motive for so many that, even as the country and the world face a virus that the enforcement system is helping spread, deportations continue and detention centers remain full. ICE has publicly reported over 6,000 coronavirus cases among its detained population—a definitive undercount.
This calcified, self-perpetuating system grinds on irrespective of the risks it imposes upon detainees. The pandemic revealed—if there was ever a doubt—that an enforcement regime with such callous disregard for human life cannot be redeemed. The only reasonable path forward is to render the pernicious incentives that sustain it obsolete by creating a path to citizenship for the immigrant community whose criminalization it profits off.
Both police and ICE agents commit acts of violence with impunity; both operate within institutions that profit off of the surveillance and incarceration of people.