After decades of steady growth, immigration-enforcement spending has dropped slightly under President Obama — though the amount is still more than the budgets of the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, according to a report released Monday.
The Migration Policy Institute said Congress has built up a "formidable machinery" of enforcement over the past 25 years and last year spent 24 percent more on immigration than it did on all other federal police branches.
MPI said immigration spending likely will drop amid budget pressures and that's all the more reason to evaluate what works, and to look at solutions outside of enforcement. The think tank said that should set up a broader immigration debate in Congress that would rewrite the legal immigration system.
"An immigration-law bulwark is in place," said Doris Meissner, a former head of the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service who is a senior fellow at MPI. "It's an imperfect system. It would benefit from a recalibration in many areas, but it is a sound, lasting structure."
The broader immigration debate is already beginning.
President Obama has promised to write his own immigration legislation this year, and all sides say there is an appetite to at least begin taking up some legislation — though major sticking points remain, such as how to handle future guest workers.
Critics say there are enforcement holes to be plugged before Congress moves to legalization.
Steven A. Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said E-Verify, the government's system for businesses to check new employees' work status, is still voluntary.
He also said the government's entry-exit system still can't track when visitors leave the country.
Mr. Camarota said that if the 1986 immigration amnesty law is any guide, Congress will promise both legal status and better enforcement, but deliver only on the legalization. He said there are too many well-connected pressure groups that could block stricter E-Verify or entry-exit checks.
"It can all be done, but there's no plans to do it. Experience would suggest enormous bureaucratic hurdles would have to be overcome, and political opposition would be fierce," he said. "Once the amnesty goes through, all the illegal immigrants get legalized, but the enforcement always languishes."
After the last bruising congressional immigration fight in 2007, when legislation fell to a bipartisan filibuster, Republicans emerged to say the lesson they learned was that voters wanted enforcement first.
The Bush administration poured money into enforcement and began construction of border fencing and vehicle barriers, and Mr. Obama followed suit. The illegal immigrant population has dropped from 12 million in 2007 to about 11 million now — though analysts debate how much of that is a result of the slumping economy.
In Mr. Obama's four years in office, his administration has set records for immigration prosecutions and deportations, which topped 400,000 last year. That has drawn fire from immigrant rights advocates, who say the president has been too harsh.
On the other side of the ledger, the Obama administration levied more than 300 civil fines against businesses that hired illegal immigrants in 2011 — far higher than the Bush administration's top year.
With those statistics in hand, Mr. Obama and his top aides argue that they have checked the box on enforcement, and that it's time to tackle legalization.
But MPI found that when controlled for inflation, spending on border and interior enforcement and the US-VISIT system has begun to drop from its peak.
In 2009, spending neared $20 billion when calculated in present-day dollar values. But it dropped to $17.9 billion in fiscal year 2012, which ended Sept. 30.
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