Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Increased Border Security Doesn't Stop Immigration

Immigration reform is a hot topic right now.  There's a lot of calls for more border security and increased enforcement.  However, do these policies work to actually reduce the number of illegal immigrants in the country.  Every year we spend more on enforcement and almost almost every year the number of undocumented workers living in the country still  grows.

I wanted to create a graph that showed the number of undocumented workers in the country vs. the amount we spend on immigration enforcementborder security over time.  The problem is that there is surprisingly little data that estimates the number of illegible immigrantsundocumented workers living in the country.  The Department of Homeland Security created official estimates(pdf) for the years 2000, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009. 

The rest of the years I would have to find other sources.  Fortunately, a website called procon already did that.  They compiled a list of illegal immigrant estimates from several different sources.  The data goes back to as early as 1969, but doesn't have separate numbers for each year.  However, I think that's the best we can do so I'll have to make do.

Here is the graph of the amount we spend on immigration enforcement vs. number of undocumented workers living in our country.  The amount spent has been adjusted for inflation and made into 2009 dollars.
immigration_enforcement_vs_undocumented_workers
(Click chart for larger image. Click here for the numbers)
As you can see the amount we spend on enforcement - even adjusting for inflation - has been going up since the mid 80's.  However, the number of immigrants keeps going up.  It is not until the enforcement spending skyrocketed in 2008 and 2009 that the number of immigrants actually decreased.  That is the only time there has been a correlation between increased border patrol spending and a decrease in illegal immigrants.  The rest of the time there is no correlation between increased spending and falling undocumented immigrants.  In fact, the numbers almost seem to rise and fall at the same time.

Some might argue that we're finally spending enough on border control and immigration enforcement that we can finally see the results.  However, let's take a look at the graph above.  This time, however, I've added in the United States GDP (also adjusted for inflation) into the mix.  (Border Patrol spending is in thousands of dollars, GDP is in millions of dollars)
undocument_workers_vs_gdp
(Click chart for larger image. Click here for the numbers)
Looking at this graph we can see 3 instances where a decrease or a flatline of U.S. gdp(i.e. a recession) has been a leading indicator to fewer undocumented workers.  If there weren't so many gaps in the historical data of illegal immigrant populations, we'd probably see even more.

I think the case for an enforcement only immigration policy is pretty thin for two reason. One, only once has increased spending lead to fewer immigrants, and that may yet still prove to be because of the recession.  Two, look at how much we've increased spending on enforcement since 1962.  We've been using an enforcement only policy for years and do you think  its working?

Finally, one last interesting statistic.   The federal government spends more on border patrol and immigration enforcement than the rest of it's law enforcement activities combined.  In 2009 we spent  $27.5 billion total on law enforcement activities.  $17.2 billion of that was spend on border patrolcustoms and immigration enforcement(see numbers here).  So the FBI, Secret Service, DEA, ATF, and U.S. Marshals all combined cost less than our current immigration enforcement policies.

There must be a better solution for dealing with undocumented workers than to spend 62% of all federal law enforcement.  Based on these numbers I find it hard to see how an enforcement only policy can work.
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