Editorial

It's time for Congress to agree on a humane immigration solution

It's easy to say, 'deport them all' but that's costly and disruptive, and painful for those who're swept up

In this nation's never-ending debate over immigration, those who demand strict enforcement of existing laws are armed with a simple rejoinder: What, they ask, do you not understand about “illegal”? To them, the solution to illegal immigration is to identify those who are here illegally and deport them.

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FOR THE RECORD:

This editorial says that some immigrants’ status is determined by judges and prosecutors in the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review. Prosecutors are now employed by the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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It's a reasonable point. A law should be enforced. But the argument can't be isolated from the realities of immigration, which is propelled by regional economic imbalances, familial connections and the basic human desire to live a better, safer and richer life. Those are powerful forces, unlikely to be thwarted by stepped-up deportation. Instead, under those pressures, our immigration system has crumbled, and strict enforcement has become impractical, even impossible. Congress can and should, but probably won't, fix it. That leaves pragmatism — which President Obama exhibited with his recent directives offering deportation reprieves for some 5 million immigrants here illegally.

Modern immigration policies date to the Reagan-era Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants who had arrived in the country before Jan. 1, 1982. The law also introduced some sanctions on employers who hire undocumented workers, among other reforms. Subsequent revisions made bureaucratic changes and sought to toughen up enforcement. Despite that, illegal immigration has more than doubled since the law was adopted.

Currently, the immigration system rivals tax codes for complexity. Under the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection is responsible for ensuring that only people with legal authority enter the country; Citizenship and Immigration Services processes applications for legal status; and Immigration and Customs Enforcement tracks down and begins deportation proceedings against those here illegally. The Department of Health and Human Services takes responsibility for the welfare of detained unaccompanied minors until decisions on their status are reached. All other immigrants caught by enforcement agents are overseen by ICE either in detention centers or under monitored release until their status is determined by the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, which includes both the prosecutors and the judges. Detainees are allowed legal help but must obtain it on their own (more than half do so, often for free from nonprofit organizations).

Those agencies are responsible for a population that is scattered across the United States, immersed in all aspects of American society. Who are the undocumented? Since it's difficult to count people who are trying to hide, the scope of the issue is hard to quantify. The most reliable, nonpartisan estimates put the number at more than 11 million people, of whom about 2.5 million live in California. Just over half the national total are from Mexico, with an additional 1.7 million from Central America, and together they account for more than two-thirds of all illegal immigration. An additional 12% are from Asia, primarily China. Again, accurate data are hard to come by, but reports suggest that anywhere from one-quarter to one-third entered the country legally, often on tourist or student visas, but never left.

No matter how you parse it, all those people are here in violation of federal law, and are thus subject to deportation. Yet the size of that population is precisely what makes deportation on a grand scale impractical.

Department of Homeland Security officials have testified before Congress that their budget is sufficient to deport 400,000 people per year. Some analysts question that figure and point out that different types of deportation demand different levels of resources. For example, an undocumented immigrant turned away at the border is deported for relative pennies. The pursuit and capture of an illegal immigrant hiding somewhere in the country's interior is much more expensive.

The Congressional Research Service estimated two years ago that ICE's National Fugitive Operations Program, which tracks down people who don't leave after being ordered to do so, spent about $5,820 for each case it handled in 2011. Under ICE's Secure Communities program, which is being reinvented as part of President Obama's recent executive actions, the cost was about $2,500 per case. Taking those per-case averages as (squishy) highs and lows, the cost of merely identifying those here illegally and removing them would fall somewhere between $31.4 billion (nearly the total annual existing budget for the Department of Homeland Security) and $65.2 billion. And that range is probably low, since once the government started to hunt the undocumented, many would hide even deeper underground, making it harder and more expensive to find them.

Moreover, those estimates also don't include new costs for detention (currently about $1.8 billion a year to house 32,000 people per day) or adjudication (now a staff of 1,800 people and a $330-million budget) that would come with trying to deport more than 11 million people. The Center for American Progress advocacy group estimated in 2010 that removing all the undocumented would exceed $285 billion. Add to that the economic hit of removing so many workers — an estimated 8.4 million wage-earners, who pay local taxes and often contribute to Social Security.

The bottom line: It's easy to say, “deport them all,” but to do so would be prohibitively expensive, not to mention disruptive for employers and, of course, wrenchingly hard on those who would be swept up.

The solution: a congressional fix to make the system more humane — by granting relief to many who have lived and worked in the country for years — and also more tailored to the nation's needs, including making accommodations for agricultural workers and others whose labors are desired here. It's a new year, and a new Congress, so who knows, maybe a legislative miracle can happen. Regardless, the answer is not “deport them all.”

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