Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Sorry Donald... Why there is no Easy Solution to Immigration Reform

By Zachary SchmetterPublished October 22, 2015

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As the debate on immigration reform heats up, the divide between solutions that will increase poll numbers and the ones that will actually work on a policy perspective continues to grow. If we take a step back from the showy impractical ideas being featured in the media and use common sense to analyze the policy problems behind border security and undocumented immigration, it is clear that these problems have no easily solution and an require a substantial refocusing of our policy efforts to solve.
By Zachary Schmetterer 10/22/2015
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Early into the 2016 presidential election cycle, Donald Trump successfully cast the nation's spotlight on the issue of illegal immigration.  After spouting out lots of offensive generalizations and prejudiced rhetoric to appeal to a largely radical, white, and conservative audience, he has finally revealed more substantive plans on how he plans to tackle border security, immigration policy, and the associated consequences.  Instead of stating the obvious and explaining why making Mexico pay for the wall or instituting the mandatory return of all "criminal aliens" are not viable solutions to immigration reform, it is more imperative to focus on the fundamental policy problems associated with such reform that have been largely ignored by lawmakers in congress and the executive branch alike. 

Starting with what Mr. Trump got right, the federal government only actually secures a small fraction of the 1,954 mile U.S.-Mexican border.  The Secure Fence Act of 2006 only provided for the construction of 700 miles of fence, and, on top of that, the Government Accountability Office reported only 129 miles were under effective control, meaning border patrol has the ability to actually prevent or stop illegal entries.  Looking at the numbers, one might just say we need to increase the amount of effective border security by pumping more money into the system. Marco Rubio's bill, The Border Security, Economic Opportunity & Immigration Modernization Act Of 2013, suggests just that in its border security metrics provisions that would compel the Department of Homeland Security to achieve "100 percent border awareness and at least 90 percent apprehension rates in high-risk sectors of the U.S. Mexico border within 5 years of bill's enactment)."  

The reality of the situation is that no matter how much money is invested into border security, tribal sovereignty in critical areas along the border prevent the federal government from taking effective action to stop the majority of border crossings in high—risk sectors.   A prime example of this issue occurs on the Tohono O'odham reservation in Arizona, which has jurisdiction over a 75 mile stretch of the U.S.-Mexican border.  Statistically, tribal officials estimated that up to 1,500 undocumented migrants were crossing through the reservation per day between 1993 and 2004.  This represents a massive chunk of illegal border crossings in that approximately 2,329 total people entered the United States without authorization per day during that same time period. Despite the fact that securing this small section of border is such a high priority, the current chairman of the nation, Ned Norris, disapproves of permanent division of O'odham land, having stated publicly that a 15- to 20-foot iron wall would be built "over my dead body." Judging by Mr. Norris's remarks and the lack of contiguous effective border security, making any meaningful improvements will be financially as well as legally difficult. 

Moving on from physical security, it is imperative to examine the incentives driving illegal immigration inflow and outflow.  Anyone who has read Freakonomics or simply understands the basic idea of incentives recognizes that detaining and deporting hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants per year has not brought us any closer to solving the problems associated with undocumented immigration.  In 2014, the Department of Homeland Security deported over 400,000 people, over double the amount in 2000 during the peak inflows in illegal immigration and nearly ten times the amount we deported in 1990.   Additionally, 85% of these removals and returns were people who had been previously convicted of a crime.  Despite the fact we allocate so many resources into the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, the system is largely ineffective as out of the 188,382 criminal aliens deported in 2011, at least 86,699 or 46%, had been deported earlier and had illegally returned to the United States. 

This brings us to the key question: If all the money, power, and resources wielded by the United States government cannot effectively reduce illegal immigration and mitigate its consequences what possibly can? The answer: incentives.  In fact, the largest wave of immigration in history from a single country to the United States has come to a net standstill predominantly due to the 2007-2009 recession weakening the U.S. job market. That's right Donald, it doesn't take the A-Team to control illegal immigration, but rather we simply need to focus on the incentives. By creating public policy that incentivizes hard working immigrants with clean records to legally enter our country but at the same time creates economic, social, and legal incentives for people like human, weapons, and drug traffickers to reconsider illegally arriving should be the backbone behind sound immigration policy, not a bigger wall and more guns.