Immigration Policy Enforcement and the War on Terror

The number of undocumented migrants in the United States has slowly but steadily risen since the 1970s. At various junctures, the presence of undocumented migrants is made out to be a problem, and legislators are pushed to act. In the 1980s, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. In the 1990s, the focus of the problem was on law-breaking undocumented migrants and President Bill Clinton signed two immigration enforcement bills into law in 1996 – IIRAIRA and AEDPA. In the first decade of the twentieth century, there has been much ado about immigration, but we have not seen any major legislative changes. As we close in on the first decade of the twenty-first century, with mid-term elections in two months, it is clear there will not be a comprehensive immigration reform in this decade.

One of the reasons for this, I argue, is that immigration law enforcement has been able to change quite dramatically over the course of this decade without changing any laws. The Executive Branch has exercised considerable power and has used the pretext of the War on Terror to gain a massive infusion of funds into immigration law enforcement and to use those funds to finance its various internal initiatives. Legislators have not had to use any political capital on immigration policy, although Congress has permitted drastic changes by funding Department of Homeland Security enforcement initiatives.

Over the past decade, immigration policy enforcement in the United States has changed drastically, mostly outside of the legislative arena. The laws that permit enhanced immigration law enforcement have been in place since 1996. They have been enforced more vigorously because of the War on Terror. What the War on Terror has done has been to permit the Executive branch to request increased funding from Congress to fund its enforcement initiatives. There are three areas where we have seen marked increases in immigration law enforcement: raids, detentions, and deportations.

Worksite and home raids have occurred with growing frequency over the past few years, despite limited evidence of their efficacy at removing dangerous people or reducing the numbers of undocumented employees in the United States. In fiscal year 2002, worksite raids led to about 500 arrests; while in 2008, they led about 6,000. To achieve such marked escalation, ICE has had to implement a six-fold increase in the number of officers it employs to carry out worksite operations. These new tactics were put into place in 2006, and continued throughout 2007 and 2008, with devastating effects on immigrant communities.

The trend is similar with detentions. The infusion of money into DHS has allowed it to enforce more aggressively immigration laws, and to house more detainees. In 1973, the INS detained a daily average of 2,370 migrants. By 1980, this had gone up to 4,062. By 1994, the daily average was 5,532; it was about 20,000 in 2001; and, in 2008, ICE detained an average of 33,400 migrants a day.

The rise in deportations is also remarkable. Between 1998 and 2007, over 2 million people were deported from the United States. Deportations have been on the rise since the passage of the 1996 immigration laws. There were 50,924 deportations in 1995, and 208,521 in 2005, a four-fold increase in ten years. In FY 2008, nearly 350,000 people were deported – more than 50 percent more than were deported in the entire decade between 1981 and 1990. In FY 2009, the number of deportees approached 400,000.

These increases in immigration policy enforcement are due primarily to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For immigration policy, the transfer of immigration law enforcement from the Department of Justice (DOJ) to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was a critical moment; immigration policy took on new meaning when it became central to the United States’ efforts in fighting terrorism.

The DHS has a much bigger budget than its predecessor – the INS. Moreover, this budget has steadily increased since its creation in 2003 – from $31.2 billion to $50.5 billion in 2009. Of the $50.5 billion Department of Homeland Security (DHS) budget for Fiscal Year 2009, about $10.9 billion went to Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), $5.7 billion to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and $2.7 billion to Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). ICE’s budget of $5.7 billion means that unprecedented amounts of money are put into immigration law enforcement inside the United States. ICE’s budget alone is now larger than the entire budget of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

The surge in interior enforcement comes with a high human cost – communities are left shaken; families are torn apart; and, detainees have their dignity stripped away. 1.6 million U.S. citizens have been separated from their family members due to deportations since 1996. The high human cost of these measures renders it necessary to consider the benefits of the enforcement regime. Why has this strategy been implemented?

Looking through DHS documents for an explanation of why we have seen an increase in interior enforcement, the most frequently cited explanation is national security – the core of the DHS mission. The first priority of the DHS is to protect the nation from dangerous people. In Secretary Michael Chertoff’s statement in support of the 2009 budget request, he stated:

“We will continue to protect our nation from dangerous people by strengthening our border security efforts and continuing our efforts to gain effective control of our borders. The Department’s main priority is to prevent additional terrorist attacks against our country.”

In this introductory statement, Secretary Chertoff confounds border security with terrorist prevention. As Chertoff continues to praise DHS’s accomplishments in terms of protecting the nation, he cites their “Record-Breaking Law Enforcement.” He points out that ICE removed about 240,000 “illegal aliens, made 863 criminal arrests and fined or seized more than $30 million following worksite investigations.” In this statement, Chertoff is celebrating the fact that arrests in worksite enforcement operations have increased nine-fold since 2003. Chertoff makes a direct connection between raids and national security. He cites the arrest and removal of 4,077 undocumented workers in worksite enforcement operations under the goal of protecting the nation from dangerous people.

There is no evidence to suggest that the undocumented workers removed from meatpacking plants are dangerous people. Moreover, the fact that most were removed on administrative and not criminal grounds is clear evidence that they had no criminal records. The vast amount of resources that ICE has poured into enforcing immigration laws has been possible due to the unwarranted conflation of national security with the removal of undocumented migrants.

It may be the case that DHS officials are well aware that raids, detentions and deportations are not making this country a safer place, but use this rhetoric to request budgetary allocations from Congress. Members of Congress may also be aware of the ineffectiveness of these strategies in terms of fighting terrorism, but are unwilling to vote against anything that alleges it fights terrorism. Perhaps this is the best we can expect from bureaucrats and lawmakers in the current context of the War on Terror. In that case, it is up to the citizenry to insist on the implementations of measures that actually enhance national security, not that simply claim to do so. It is also up to the citizenry to speak up against these sorts of policies that do little to make the country safer, but do worlds of harm to communities and families.

TANYA GOLASH-BOZA is an Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas. She blogs at:

Tanya Golash-Boza is the author of: Yo Soy Negro Blackness in PeruImmigration Nation: Raids, Detentions and Deportations in Post-9/11 Americaand Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States. Her new book Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor, and Global Capitalism will be published by NYU Press in 2015.