The federal government has failed in one of its most basic functions: controlling who enters the country. A significant portion of the roughly 10.8 million illegal immigrants inside the United States entered with a valid visa but stayed after their visas expired. Those who favor granting amnesty—including the Obama Administration—have tried to convince Americans to support this plan by claiming that their actions to secure the border, strengthen interior enforcement, and tighten visa policy are tough. Yet the Administration’s recent actions, including its dismissals of deportation cases against noncriminal illegal immigrants and undercutting of key tools like the 287(g) program, which facilitates joint federal, state, and local investigations of immigration law violations, indicate the opposite.
Through these actions, the Obama Administration has moved the U.S. farther from enforcement of immigration laws and is sending an unequivocal message to the American people that it knows best which laws should be enforced and which ones should be ignored. Equally problematic, the Obama Administration is sending a clear signal to the millions of illegal immigrants in the U.S. and millions of potential immigrants still in their home countries that entering and staying in the U.S. illegally will not be penalized. This message will only encourage more illegal immigration, especially when the economy rebounds.
The idea that amnesty is the right strategy for addressing unlawful presence in the United States has been rejected repeatedly by Congress and the American people—and with good reason. It would do little to solve the problem. In fact, it would do the opposite (while adding significantly to the federal debt) by encouraging further illegal border crossing and unlawful presence and undermining efforts to establish respect for the rule of law, institute meaningful reforms, and help employers to get the employees they need when they need them to help the U.S. economy grow and prosper.
It is time for the Administration to put this unrealistic approach aside once and for all and begin a serious, practical, and honest approach to fixing America’s broken borders and flawed immigration system. Leaving the issue for the next generation or using immigration as a tool to win votes through amnesty is not only irresponsible, but also wrong in terms of national security, the rule of law, and economic prosperity.
- Maintain and increase efforts to enhance border security. The Department of Homeland Security and Congress should define a variety of solutions capable of responding to the multiple threats faced at the border, ranging from illicit drugs to illegal migration. These should include investments in technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and cameras/sensors that would give the Border Patrol enhanced monitoring and detection capabilities. Cooperation between the U.S. and Mexican law enforcement through Border Enforcement Security Task Forces and related Merida Initiative programs is essential. Congress and the Administration should also ensure that the U.S. Coast Guard has adequate vessels and personnel to fulfill its missions and intercept illegal immigrants at sea.
- Reject amnesty proposals. Granting amnesty to the millions of illegal immigrants in the United States would only make our problems with illegal immigration worse. The United States learned this lesson in 1986 when Congress granted a mass amnesty to the nearly 3 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. at the time. This only served as an incentive for illegal immigration, encouraging a whole new wave of people to come here illegally. The Administration must reject calls for amnesty and instead employ measures to deter migrants from crossing U.S. borders illegally.
- Strengthen interior enforcement measures in the United States. Since taking office, the Obama Administration has eroded key interior enforcement measures, including abandoning “Social Security No-Match,” which notified employers when they hired workers whose personal information did not match Social Security records and informed them of their legal obligations, and fostering changes that have weakened the 287(g) program, which allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement to train state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws. The Administration has also reduced prosecutions of non-criminal aliens within the United States. These policies undermine efforts to deter illegal immigration, essentially sending the message that once here, it is easy to find employment and stay indefinitely. To ensure a comprehensive approach to illegal immigration, the Administration must commit to enforcing existing immigration laws.
- Promote economic development and good governance in Latin America to stem the “push-pull effect” that fosters illegal immigration. Illegal immigration results largely from the “push-pull effect” caused by the combination of slow economies in Latin America and the need for workers in the United States. To stem this tide, the United States should implement a market-based temporary-worker pilot program to meet the American demand for workers, giving U.S. businesses access to a reliable, rotating workforce from abroad. Such programs, including the implementation of a simplified visa system, would meet the needs of the American economy and also quell the drive for illegal immigration. Fostering free-market economic reforms in Latin America would also help to strengthen regional economic opportunities and reduce the need for individuals to seek employment abroad in order to support themselves and their families.
- Reform the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to handle legal immigration more effectively and efficiently. USCIS needs to do a better job of providing the immigration services and enforcement that the nation needs. Reforms should include an entirely new funding model, a comprehensive overhaul of the agency’s service support enterprise, and better integration of USCIS programs with immigration enforcement and border control efforts. USCIS also needs to streamline existing visa programs, such as those for temporary or seasonal agricultural workers.
- Enhance legal-worker programs to provide legal avenues of immigration that meet the needs of employers and immigrants. Rather than rewarding those who have come here illegally, Congress and the Administration should better manage those who wish to immigrate legally to the United States. America needs to pilot a market-based temporary worker program that gives U.S. businesses access to a reliable, dynamic, and rotating temporary workforce. Such a program would reduce the demand for illegal immigrants by allowing those who want to work to enter the country legally, earn money, and then return home. It would also serve the needs of the American economy.
Facts & Figures
- The number of illegal immigrants inside the U.S. has topped off at around 12 million. Since the recent economic recession began, numbers have decreased to around 10.8 million.
- Nearly 400,000 illegal immigrant women give birth inside the U.S. each year.
- Approximately 58 percent of illegal immigrants come from Mexico. Another 23 percent come from other Latin American countries, and 18 percent come from Asia, Europe, and Africa.
- According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, one of every four inmates in federal prisons is an illegal immigrant.
- Between 50 percent and 60 percent of illegal immigrants are high school dropouts.
- As of July 2011, 12 states have active legislation granting illegal immigrant students in-state tuition benefits: California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Washington. Wisconsin enacted it in 2009 but revoked it in 2011. Maryland citizens will have a chance to vote on a referendum repealing their state’s legislation.
Selected Additional Resources
- James Jay Carafano, “Amnesty Legislation Still the Wrong Answer for Responsible Immigration Reform,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 3327, July 27, 2011.
- Matt A. Mayer, James Jay Carafano, and Jessica Zuckerman, “Homeland Security 4.0: Overcoming Centralization, Complacency, and Politics,” Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 97, August 23, 2011.
- Matt A. Mayer and Jena Baker McNeill, “Time to Stop the Rush for ‘Amnesty’ Immigration Reform,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2385, March 18, 2010.
- Robert Rector, “Providing Health Care for Illegal Immigrants: Understanding the House Health Care Bill,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2345, November 23, 2009.
- Hans von Spakovsky, “Here Illegally and Criminals as Well,” Heritage Foundation Commentary, April 27, 2011.
- Ray Walser, Jena Baker McNeill, and Jessica Zuckerman, “The Human Tragedy of Illegal Immigration: Greater Efforts Needed to Combat Smuggling and Violence,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2568, June 22, 2011.
Heritage Experts on Immigration
Congress and the Administration should support the continued use and improvement of E–Verify in conjunction with other worksite measures. Employment remains one of the biggest drivers of illegal immigration in the United States. Therefore, it is essential that Congress and the Administration support E-Verify and other worksite measures to enforce the law and decrease the incentive to come to the United States illegally. Recent programs like Self Check, which is a free, voluntary service that would allow individuals to log in to a system to verify their immigration status and address any problems with their work status, including outdated information or typographical errors, are tangible improvements to the E-Verify system which should be supported.
In addition, the Justice Department should terminate all federal lawsuits filed against states like Arizona, Alabama, and South Carolina over their state immigration laws. Federal immigration laws reflect the intent of Congress that states would help the federal government enforce our immigration policies. The Justice Department should cease filing frivolous and unwarranted lawsuits against states that are trying to assist federal enforcement.