Is enforcement key to fixing America's immigration system?
February 15th, 2013
09:49 AM ET

Is enforcement key to fixing America's immigration system?

By Andrew R. Morral and Peter Brownell, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Andrew Morral is a senior behavioral scientist and associate director of RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment, and Peter Brownell is an associate social scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. The views expressed are their own.

As President Obama reiterated in his State of the Union address, immigration reform will likely entail some combination of easing the path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, and increasing border control and immigration law enforcement. Given that the U.S. already spends about a quarter more on immigration enforcement and border control than on all other federal law enforcement activities combined, it’s worth considering where the country could improve enforcement without breaking the bank.

A rapid expansion of personnel and technological resources over the past decade has improved border control chiefly by identifying and targeting areas with historically high volumes of illegal crossings. But building this system out further would be costly, and offer progressively lower returns on investment.

And even if improved border control succeeded in deterring or interdicting more would-be border crossers, the impact would be limited: The vast U.S. borders would be nearly impossible to seal completely, and as many as half of undocumented immigrants enter the country legally, by some estimates.

Although deportations of undocumented immigrants are at an all-time high, at just over 400,000 in 2012, this accounts for a small fraction of the total undocumented population. For this reason, many multiples of the $2.9 billion currently spent on enforcement and removal by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) may be required to significantly reduce undocumented immigrant populations.

More from GPS: How America can fix its immigration system

Illegal migration is likely to continue as long as there are compelling reasons for foreign citizens to move to the United States – and there are many, including reunification with family members or a desire to escape persecution. However, a primary motive for most recent immigrants has been economic opportunity, even for immigrants who lack proper documentation to work. An estimated 8 million undocumented immigrants have entered the U.S. workforce, according to the Pew Research Hispanic Center.

If the economic incentive to immigrate illegally could be eliminated, the United States would see a dramatic reduction in illegal immigration. Recognizing the importance of such a strategy, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has developed programs and enforcement approaches designed to discourage employers from hiring undocumented workers. For example, worksite enforcement programs have targeted employers violating immigration laws with civil and criminal penalties, in some cases seizing assets derived from the employment of unauthorized workers.

Despite efforts by ICE to focus on criminal cases against unscrupulous employers, criminal arrests of business owners and managers who knowingly employ unauthorized immigrants remain fewer than 500 per year. Combined fines and asset forfeitures have reportedly reached annual totals as high as $43.6 million in fiscal year 2010. But averaged across all 8 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. workforce, this amounts to less than $5.50 per year (or $0.46 per month). One might imagine that the savings from employing unauthorized workers are orders of magnitude larger. In other words, despite improvements, the risk of criminal charges remains slight and the expected cost of penalties remains small compared to the potential economic gains.

More from CNN: Americans favor reform, poll says

Achieving even these modest enforcement successes has reportedly required over 500,000 case hours per year and a worksite enforcement budget that totaled $126 million in FY 2009. Sufficiently scaling up the existing system of worksite immigration enforcement to more seriously limit unauthorized immigrants’ access to the labor market would likely require the huge investment of resources that we have seen, so far, only at the U.S.-Mexico border.

However, the current debate regarding comprehensive immigration reform offers an opportunity to redesign the worksite immigration enforcement system to achieve more efficient enforcement with better intelligence on where undocumented workers are employed.

Employers are required to fill out an I-9 form when hiring a new employee, attesting that they have examined documents establishing the hire’s identity and work authorization. But rather than submit such forms to the government, employers are merely required to retain them in their own files. If ICE immigration inspectors want to examine a firm’s I-9 forms, they must request them from the employer and wait up to 72 hours to receive them. This is a labor-intensive process with unnecessarily high transaction costs.

If employers were instead required to submit employment eligibility information on all employees – in the same way they must collect and submit tax ID information – this could vastly improve ICE intelligence collection and investigation activities.

One approach to developing a mandatory submission system would be through the existing voluntary E-Verify program, which allows employers to check the work eligibility of their employees. If E-Verify were made mandatory, it would place the burden of verifying work eligibility on employers.

That said, mandating the use of E-Verify would be a difficult political battle because it can identify only about half of unauthorized hires due to the misuse of valid identities. And there are real costs to employers and legal workers when legal immigrants or U.S. citizens are incorrectly flagged as unauthorized.

A better approach would be a system that requires employers to electronically submit employees’ identity information upon hiring, rather than requiring them to verify the eligibility of their hires.

Such a system would provide significantly improved intelligence, allowing ICE to target employers with a pattern of hiring unauthorized workers. It would largely avoid the problem of denying legal workers employment due to errors in the databases supporting E-Verify.

Given the importance of maintaining access to work and a livelihood for legally authorized workers and maintaining access to a qualified legal workforce for the nation’s businesses, any changes to the system of establishing employment authorization will require the input and cooperation of all major stakeholders.

Whether E-Verify becomes mandatory or remains voluntary, it is critical to ensure a fair and timely appeals process to address cases in which authorized workers are erroneously identified as unauthorized.

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Topics: Immigration • United States

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soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. JAL

    Are the similarities of the Earths Solar System/Fluorine Atom coupled to the Law of Gravity/Coulombs Law coupled to the characterization of mass spring damper/RLCckt enough to deduce that there is a gravity well/hole orbiting our sun and filling this well will lead to significantly better Solar system stability via rogue asteroid elimination?

    February 15, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Reply
    • JAL

      The characterization of a unified field theory must be achieved through the context of love. Where else can we observe electromagnetic forces causing an observed gravitational force?

      February 15, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Reply
      • JAL

        March of the penguins.

        February 15, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
    • Carol

      wow you are brilliant and have twisted minds of many including me! hey use it wisely ... do the right thing ... be a man!

      February 15, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Reply
    • JAL

      If we exclude Pluto as a planet, then there are 2 gravity wells orbiting our Sun in the Edgeworth–Kuiper belt. That is where all of the asteroids should go.

      February 15, 2013 at 4:08 pm | Reply
  2. wigglwagon

    Enforcement is the key.

    The penalty for employers of illegal aliens should be mandatory sentences of $15,000 fines per illegal worker and 2 years in jail without parole per illegal worker. That and deportation of the illegal workers would put an immediate end to the problem.

    That is all the reform we need.

    February 15, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Reply
  3. Carol

    That's right – deport them all and let us fold our sleeves and start doing the dirty job for peanuts and stop being a couch potato. The country will shine like a new dime .... with such hard working people we are who strive for better future by going through higher education ...

    In any case, what will happen will happen ... is the result of the last decades actions ... can't change that .. but change the future by acting smartly today.

    Let us legalize the illegal immigrants to start with – they were working here hard enough for decades ... let us use this part of our muscle as well.

    February 15, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Reply
    • Galactus98

      Carol will you pay my property taxes? I sure don't want to pay to send the children of illegal aliens to our public schools and you seem to have plenty of money to pay for all their welfare.

      February 15, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Reply
      • Glen Perouza

        Carol, one cannot get welfare foodstamps or public assistance when you're illegal, matter of fact word on the street the same people owed the 40 acreas and a mule are the same ones milking the system, claim they're gonna get what's owed to them any which way

        February 16, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
  4. Galactus98

    Enforcing some kind of employment verification system to weed out the illegal aliens is a great idea. Millions of new jobs can be created and millions of illegal aliens will have to return home if they cant' find work anymore.

    February 15, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  5. birdhouse9

    There's a reason that illegal's are called illegal's, it's because they are breaking the law. Just because they did for years, and corporate greed and made the powers that be for the most part turn a blind eye to that gaping hole in the fence, does not mean that it is not now, and has not always been, Illegal. There is a legal process to go through, and slapping blanket amnesty on ALL of them isn't the answer, what complete bull@#it. Then you may as well give it to every other illegally here immigrant who's visitors/work/guest visa's have expired. At least they bothered to have some sort of VISA in the first place. I certainly would hope that ANY and I mean any encounters with them with law enforcement would automatically get them deported. Did they ever stop to think that they're treatment of them made "american originals" resent the hell out of them? When you're an "american original" and things are denied to you that are freely given to foreigners and illegals, that tends to create an atmosphere of resentment. Think about that powers that be when you're pondering granting blanket citizenship to people that clearly and plainly dont deserve it. Break the law, and just keep doing it and that's how you get what you want? Well, that's how politicians do I suppose you're teaching them the "american way"

    February 16, 2013 at 2:28 am | Reply
    • jay

      you can't build a wall on 7000 miles of border. the only solution is going after employers who hire illegals. but GOP refused to pass employer sanction.

      February 16, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Reply

      Amusing how the "american originals" and those who refer to their highest-ranking elected official as "putz prez" need a little help with their English...

      March 7, 2013 at 8:02 pm | Reply
  6. jay

    as a Tea Party conservative, i believe in law compliance, illegal IS ILLEGAL..
    however, i also see the law of nature. you can pass a law to prohibit the sun from rising in the east but the sun will still be rising from the east. US/Mexico from a physical geography, is one piece of land. the only solution to this is to make mexico's economy like canada's. fewer than 0.001% of illegal aliens are from canada as canadians have no reason to become illegals.

    February 16, 2013 at 3:08 pm | Reply
  7. wannabe

    Stop chain Migration, or so called "family reunification"!

    The definition of "family" must mean a spouse and children of you own. And that's it. Three decades ago, most immigrants came were well-qualified, much needed scientists, and health-care professionals. But with the chain migraion, their brothers, sisters, parents, grand parents, cousins, nephews, nieces, and so on arrived, so now you see more who purely seek wealth and benefits from this country, but show no loyalty to this country, and no desire to contribute to the well-being of this country.

    February 16, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  8. j. von hettlingen

    In most European countries there are authorities that keep track on who's living where. Every person has to register himself where he lives. This is done for fiscal and electoral reasons. They have ways to find out whether a foreigner stays in a country illegally.

    February 18, 2013 at 5:50 am | Reply
  9. Concerned American

    How's this for an idea? Make entering this country illegally a felony. Make the fine $2500 plus one year in Federal prison. Make this the same on overstayed VISAs. If drugs are involved, triple the fine. Then, apply this to all the illegal aliens in this country now. Leave or if you get caught, the fine will apply to them. Maybe, just maybe, this will take the place of a fence that is costly and doesn’t seem to work all that well. It may even cut down on the cost of deporting these illegal aliens. The other thing is this birthright citizenship We MUST stop ALL incentives that draw illegal aliens.

    February 20, 2013 at 9:37 pm | Reply
    • Sweet Tea

      How much does it cost to incarcerate a person? How much does it cost to deport a person? Figure that out and you will see that neither are cost effective.

      The main point of this article is.....what are the best cost effective solutions to illegal immigration? It seems to suggest that the best way is enforcement upon employers. Take the economic incentive away, thus any reason to hire illegals, and illegal immigration trickles to close to zero.

      February 21, 2013 at 11:46 pm | Reply
  10. DMG2FUN

    Since putz prez bo wants American citizens to enforce federal gun control laws. Why does he go ape poop when American citizens enforce federal immigration law?

    February 22, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Reply
  11. Social Worker

    I’m sick of hearing ignorant, linear-causality views of immigration that purport enforcement and punitive measures as a straight-forward, cure-all solution. What’s more, people who push for this tend to oppose increased government spending. As Mr. Morral and Mr. Brownell pointed out, the U.S. spends about 25% more on immigration enforcement and border control than all other federal law enforcement combined; building further on this system costs a lot of money and “offers progressively lower returns on investment.” That’s ridiculous! America has the highest poverty rate in the industrialized world, and we’re arguing about spending more money on efforts with information clearly demonstrating financial inefficiency and ineffectiveness? Likewise, as the authors pointed out, U.S. borders are pretty much impossible to completely seal, and illegal migration is always going to continue as long as there are reasons for individuals to migrate here. Furthermore, research has debunked nearly every common argument against immigration. For example, immigrants generally take jobs that Americans fail to fill because of low pay or low status of the job. With the combination of a low likelihood of being arrested for knowingly employing unauthorized immigrants (less than 500 a year), and the economic benefits of employing people who accept low pay, this pattern isn’t going to stop. We need more articles like this illuminating the reality of the situation and offering new, realistic alternatives instead of beating a dead horse. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, America’s on the way to the looney bin.

    March 15, 2013 at 10:49 am | Reply
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    August 5, 2013 at 5:48 am | Reply

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