Attrition Through Enforcement

Jessica M. Vaughan, Center for Immigration Studies, April 2006

Proponents of mass legalization of the illegal alien population, whether through amnesty or expanded guestworker programs, often justify this radical step by suggesting that the only alternative—a broad campaign to remove illegal aliens by force—is unworkable. One study put the cost of such a deportation strategy at $206 billion over the next five years. But mass forced removal is not the only alternative to mass legalization. This analysis shows that a strategy of attrition through enforcement, in combination with a stronger border security effort such as the administration’s Secure Border Initiative (SBI), will significantly reduce the size of the illegal alien population at a reasonable cost. Reducing the size of the illegal population in turn will reduce the fiscal and social burdens that illegal immigration imposes on communities. In contrast, a policy of mass legalization is likely to increase these costs and prompt more illegal immigration.

Studies of the size and growth of the illegal population show that a borders-oriented strategy like SBI, which aims to improve border security and focuses mainly on removing criminal aliens, will achieve only limited results. If supplemented by attrition through enforcement, which encourages voluntary compliance with immigration laws rather than relying on forced removal, the illegal population could be nearly halved in five years. According to the government’s own cost estimates, such a strategy requires an additional investment of less than $2 billion, or $400 million per year—an increase of less than 1 percent of the President’s 2007 budget request for the Department of Homeland Security ($42.7 billion).

Elements of the attrition through enforcement strategy include: mandatory workplace verification of immigration status; measures to curb misuse of Social Security and IRS identification numbers; partnerships with state and local law enforcement officials; expanded entry-exit recording under US-VISIT; increased non-criminal removals; and state and local laws to discourage illegal settlement.

The purpose of this analysis is to identify both the likely cost to the federal government and the expected effect in terms reducing the size of the illegal alien population, of re-orienting the nation’s immigration law enforcement strategy from one that relies primarily on border control and removing criminal aliens to one that also aims to increase the probability that illegal aliens will return home of their own accord. Among the findings:

  • A strategy of attrition through enforcement could reduce the illegal population by as many as 1.5 million illegal aliens each year. Currently, only about 183,000 illegal aliens per year depart without the intervention of immigration officials, according to DHS statistics.
  • Voluntary compliance works faster and is cheaper than a borders-only approach to immigration law enforcement. For example, under the controversial NSEERS program launched after 9/11, DHS removed roughly 1,500 illegally-resident Pakistanis; over the same time period, in response to the registration requirements, about 15,000 illegal Pakistani immigrants left the country on their own.
  • Requiring employers to verify the status of workers could deny jobs to about three million illegal workers in three years, affecting at least one-third of the illegal population. This measure is a central feature of H.R. 4437, the enforcement measure passed by the House of Representatives in December, and is estimated to cost just over $400 million over five years.
  • The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) knows the name, address, and place of employment of millions of illegal aliens, and issues hundreds of millions of dollars in tax refunds and tax credits to illegal aliens. Changing the laws to provide for information-sharing would help boost immigration law enforcement at minimal cost.
  • US-VISIT is a critical tool in curbing illegal immigration. Screening must be expanded to include Mexicans and Canadians, and DHS must move forward to deploy an exit-recording system. These steps should be a pre-requisite to adding or expanding any visa program.
  • Less than 10 percent of ICE investigative resources are devoted to fraud, workplace violations, and overstayers. DHS could double non-criminal removals at a cost of roughly $120 million per year, balancing a “broken windows” approach with its current triage approach to interior enforcement.
  • Laws enacted by the state governments of Florida and New York to prevent illegal immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses have induced more illegal aliens to leave than have federal enforcement efforts against certain illegal populations in those states, and have come at virtually no cost to the federal government.

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