Is Illegal Immigration No Longer An Issue?

The Obama administration spent more money on immigration enforcement last year than it did on all other major federal law enforcement agencies combined, according to a new report. Host Michel Martin discusses that budget and unsettled immigration issues with the report's author Doris Meissner.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, it's easy to forget now that President Obama was once just one of a group of up and coming young black leaders, rising stars that many people assumed would change the face of American politics.

As the president heads into his second term, we thought we'd find out what happened to some of those other rising stars. We'll talk about the so-called hip-hop generation in politics. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, we want to talk about an issue the president has called a top priority for his second term: immigration. In a new report from a group called the Migration Policy Institute offers a new perspective on this. The group finds that the administration spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement last year, which is more, the report says, than the government spent on all other major federal law enforcement agencies combined.

We wanted to talk more about this new finding and what it means and also what might be in store for this issue, so I'm joined now by the lead author of this report, Doris Meissner. She is a senior fellow and director of U.S. immigration policy at the Migration Policy Institute. That's a nonprofit research group. She was also commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration.

Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

DORIS MEISSNER: Thank you.

MARTIN: So this number that you're reporting is, I think, rather surprising to many people to find out that more was spent on immigration enforcement than all of these other agencies combined and that would include, what? The FBI, the...

MEISSNER: The FBI, the DEA, the ATF...

MARTIN: The ATF.

MEISSNER: ...the Secret Service and the U.S. Marshals Service.

MARTIN: And the U.S. Marshals Service. Was that number surprising to you?

MEISSNER: Actually, yes, it was. And I do follow these issues. We were looking at the totality of immigration enforcement programs that have been put into place in the last 25 years with a particular emphasis on the last 10 years since 9/11 because that's when so much of the buildup has taken place.

But, when we actually calculated the budget numbers to see what it is that's being invested now in immigration enforcement, it was stunning and it is a number that's not only larger than all of those agencies combined. It's 24 percent larger than all of those agencies combined.

MARTIN: And did the major jump come after 9/11 or did it actually precede that?

MEISSNER: Well, this is a buildup that has been taking place for at least two decades, possibly 25 years, but the major jump most certainly has been since 9/11. Even since 2006, 2007, the last time that we had an immigration debate, the numbers in the last five or six years have been quite dramatic as against those post-9/11 numbers.

MARTIN: I think the question that many people might ask would be, is the country getting what it paid for? Is this spending achieving the desired result and what is the desired result? I mean, clearly, it would be to forestall, prevent another terrorist attack by people who shouldn't be in the country, anyway, and we have not had such an incident, so what I think one might argue in that sense that spending is justified. But, sort of more broadly, what do you think the spending has accomplished?

MEISSNER: We've looked at it through an immigration lens because that's been a lot of what has been driving the politics of these allocations and it's been driving the politics of both parties. Immigration has become imbedded in the national security and border security concerns of the country because of the way that 9/11 happened, so one of the real takeaways for this from an immigration standpoint is that the country really has built a very robust immigration enforcement capability and it is enforcing the immigration laws.

One of the things that has stopped us in immigration debates in the past has been a lack of confidence on the part of the public that the government really has the will or the ability to enforce immigration laws. I think these numbers and the results from them show that, indeed, that's been a turnaround. It really is happening.

MARTIN: We understand that, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, among other groups, migration across the U.S.-Mexico border is now at net zero. Do you attribute that to more border security or do you attribute that to economic problems where the jobs just aren't there?

MEISSNER: It's both. This is a combination of factors. We've had a very significant change in the flows coming across the U.S.-Mexican border since the recession, 2007, 2008. We've also seen significant structural changes in Mexico that people have not really absorbed.

In Mexico, the growth actually has been quite good. They have not had the recession that we've had, but more importantly, their fertility rates have come down dramatically and there simply are no longer the burgeoning numbers of young people coming into their labor market that were the case in the past.

So you have reduced job demand in the United States. You have structural changes in the demographics in Mexico, as well as growth and the growth of the middle class and you have strengthened enforcement at both the southwest border and inside of the country.

MARTIN: We're talking about the politics of immigration with Doris Meissner of the Migration Policy Institute. She's also a former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. She served under the Clinton administration.

You know, you wrote a piece in the Washington Post - an opinion piece - when this report was released and you concluded by saying, quote, "even with record setting expenditures and the full use of a wide array of statutory and administrative tools, enforcement alone, no matter how well administered, is an insufficient answer to the broad challenges that illegal and legal immigration pose for America's future." Why not and what needs to happen? What else needs to happen?

MEISSNER: Well, I hope that what we see from these numbers and what we see from all of the other results of this enforcement that there is a confidence that we can talk about other issues. The other issues do have to do with labor market needs in the United States in the future. We will be looking for immigration. Immigration is important to us economically, in growth, in our scientific innovation, leadership around the world. We need immigration across the jobs spectrum, but it should be legal immigration.

So what ways can we create in our laws that make it possible for people to come here legally? We also have gaps in enforcement. Our enforcement where employers are concerned is not what it needs to be. That requires statutory mandates in order to improve it. And then, of course, there is the very large issue of the population of people in the United States who are unauthorized who don't have legal status.

MARTIN: I mean, I guess the message of the report is that, for people who are saying border security first, enforcement first and then we'll talk about everything else, I think, you know, your message is, that's been done.

MEISSNER: It's been...

MARTIN: Asked and answered and now it's time to do the other things. So, speaking of the president as, of course, you know he signed an executive order last year allowing some young undocumented immigrants to apply for something called deferred action. That means, if you came to this country at a young age, you know, meet certain criteria, you won't be deported. But that's a short term action. What do you feel is the most important thing he needs to do to address this issue in the long run?

MEISSNER: Well, the president has gone to very great lengths within the frame of his executive authority. He's done about as much as can be done where relief to people that are currently in the country that don't have illegal status are concerned. What he does...

MARTIN: Do you agree with that, by the way? I mean, did you agree with that? Was it the right thing to do, in your view?

MEISSNER: Yes, yes, I do think so. I do think that, particularly in the face of protracted congressional inaction, that it was appropriate exercise of leadership and really laying down a marker, sending the signal. We've got to do everything that we possibly can.

Now, of course, it's very important that he stay on the issue, that he make proposals on how these problems should be solved, that he work with the Congress, but at the end of the day, the Congress does have to act.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, I wanted to ask. I mean, as a person who's worked on this for a very long time, we've heard a lot of arguments on the humanitarian side about why this issue needs to be addressed, just what it does to families. What do you say to the people who are kind of immigration skeptics who think it's just wrong to have a very large group of people in this country who came here without proper authorization? They believe that it kind of creates an atmosphere of contempt for the law. They feel that it sort of suppresses the job opportunities of people who are here legally. What do you say to people who remain kind of skeptics of kind of an expansive view of immigration policy? What do you say to them?

MEISSNER: I think you have to say that we have made - we have had failures in our immigration policy. We've had failures in our enforcement. It is not - it is wrong that a large population, millions of people, somewhere between 10 and 11 million people are here without legal status, but we are also all complicit in this as a society. We overlooked this issue for many, many years. We have had cheaper food prices per dollar than any other country - advanced industrialized country in the world because illegal immigrants have been a subsidy, really, to our agricultural sector.

We enjoy services that are the result of the work of people who have come here illegally. The housing boom in the 1990s, 2000s that ultimately left us in a recession could not have happened without the work done in the construction sector. And so - and we were quite willing, generically, to overlook that. It's not - you know, it was never an open and out decision by the government or anything else, but the overall attitude that we've had as a country toward illegal immigration until the last - really, this post-9/11 period has been a lax attitude.

So, while it is wrong and a violation and it has been a violation of our laws, our laws also were not suited to the reality on the ground. We could have brought those people here legally if we had changed our laws in the 1990s to make it possible to have a labor market-based immigration policy that was far more responsive to what it was that was taking place in the economy. We did not do that, so we need to get our house in order in order to not have this be a continuing situation or a recurring situation in the future. We should learn from the fact that this is unacceptable and we should do what we believe is acceptable and consistent with the rule of law, as well as with our principles as a nation of immigrants and our humanitarian commitments.

MARTIN: Well, hopefully, you'll keep in touch with us as this issue goes forward, as we believe that it will, over the course of the next couple of months. Doris Meissner is a senior fellow and the director of U.S. immigration policy at the Migration Policy Institute. As we said, she's a former commissioner of what was the Immigration and Naturalization Service. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Doris Meissner, thanks so much for joining us once again.

MEISSNER: Thank you and thanks for your interest.

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