Legislative efforts in immigration reform have died off since the debate on the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 (S. 1348), but for the past several years, the Bush Administration did considerable work in advancing immigration reform outside the legislative process. One such effort was to enhance internal enforcement of immigration laws. The new emphasis on enforcement has resulted in a noticeable increase in the detention and deportation of illegal immigrants. However, enforcement still faces several obstacles before all immigration laws are successfully enforced. For improved enforcement to be an effective component of immigration reform, the necessary resources must be available to support a compassionate and responsible policy.
The Right Strategy for Reform. Immigration and workplace enforcement are only one component that affects migration to the United States. Establishing a robust and responsible immigration system and repairing America's broken borders will require serious effort across the entire immigration and border security system. Reform needs to be incremental and designed to deincentivize illegal immigration, while strengthening the capacity of employers to hire the employees they need to help the economy grow and prosper without jeopardizing the nation's security, sovereignty, and social fabric. Effective change does not require Congress to pass a massive, comprehensive bill. It could simply consist of sustained incremental efforts, including:
- Safeguarding the southern borderto make illegal entry into the United States less attractive than the legal avenues.
- Promoting economic development and good governance in Latin America to provide potential illegal immigrants with opportunities at home.
- Enhancing the legal worker programs to provide legal avenues that meet the needs of employers and immigrants and are a better option than illegal immigration.
- Reforming U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Servicesto handle legal immigration better.
- Enforcing immigration and workplace lawsto reduce the economic incentives for illegal immigration and restore the rule of law.
State and Local Initiative. The effort to reduce illegal immigration has not come solely from the federal government, nor should it. State and local interest in addressing illegal immigration is evident from the large number of jurisdictions applying for 287(g) partnerships and ICE ACCESS cooperation.
Lost in the debate is the ability of states and localities to enact employment, housing, identification, and other non-law enforcement measures to discourage illegal immigration in their jurisdictions. A handful of states and localities have even passed laws to apply pressure on illegal immigrants and the businesses that employ them in their respective areas. Yet many jurisdictions are hesitant to act because such actions provoke a legal onslaught from pro-illegal immigrant groups, such as business groups that want cheap labor and race-based groups that want more members.
Moving Forward on Internal Enforcement. Federal, state, and local governments have made tremendous progress in enforcing immigration laws. The Obama Administration should not allow the situation to revert to the previous era of lax enforcement. It should continue to improve internal enforcement to ensure efficacy and compassion. Specifically, the Administration should:
- Improve detention and removal. The government needs to continue to enforce immigration law and to completely end the practice of "catch and release." The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) needs to find innovative ways to move illegal immigrants expeditiously through detention centers. Using initiatives like Operation Scheduled Departure and expedited removal could greatly increase the Office of Detention and Removal's ability to process illegal immigrants.
- Foster greater cooperation with state and local governments. ICE cooperation with state and local governmentsis the only feasible way to successfully enforce immigration laws. ICE ACCESS is an extremely popular program and should receive the funding to meet the incoming partnership requests from local jurisdictions. Greater cooperation also entails state and local law enforcement communicating more with ICE to allow seamless cooperation in detaining and removing illegal immigrants.
- Achieve comprehensive worker verification. Thiswill require more than adopting E-Verify. Implementing Real ID and sharing Social Security no-match data will reduce the ability of illegal immigrants to commit identity theft and employers' ability to reuse Social Security numbers fraudulently.
Conclusion. Successful reform of U.S. immigration laws will require accountability by federal, state, and local governments. Without enforcement, the illegal immigrant population will continue to grow, and ICE and Border Patrol agents will find it increasingly difficult to focus on real threats.
Diem Nguyen is a Research Assistant in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation. Matt A. Mayer is a Visiting Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, President and Chief Executive Officer of Provisum Strategies LLC, and an Adjunct Professor at Ohio State University. He has served as Counselor to the Deputy Secretary and Acting Executive Director for the Office of Grants and Training in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Davis Institute and Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Allison Center at The Heritage Foundation.