WASHINGTON -- The United States spends more money on immigration enforcement -- nearly $18 billion in the 2012 fiscal year -- than on its other law enforcement agencies combined, according to a report released Monday from the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
That spending went to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection and US-Visit, a program that helps states and localities identify undocumented immigrants.
By contrast, the U.S. spent $14.4 billion -- combined -- on its other prime law enforcement agencies: the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshal Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
There's a reason for the high cost. The Migration Policy Institute found that ICE and CBP also refer more cases to prosecution than those other agencies combined, and the immigration agencies also held more individuals in fiscal year 2011 than the federal Bureau of Prisons.
Still, the numbers are striking. Immigration enforcement has expanded rapidly since 1986, when Congress passed the enforcement-heavy Immigration Reform and Control Act. Since then, the U.S. has spent nearly $187 billion on immigration enforcement, according to the report. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, which led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security that now houses immigration enforcement, made the spending surge even more marked.
The government spends about 15 times more on immigration enforcement than it did in the mid-1980s, adjusted for inflation, the report found.
At the same time, deportations have exploded. The U.S. deported about 30,000 people in the 1990 fiscal year; in the 2012 fiscal year, it removed a record 409,894. A majority of those people were deported without an order from an immigration judge, instead using DHS' discretion, the Migration Policy Institute found.
Immigration enforcement is more in focus than ever this year, as Congress and the White House begin work on a bipartisan agreement for reform of the system. The Obama administration, while deporting a record number of people, has put in place some reforms to focus more on high-priority immigrants, such as convicted criminals. It also implemented the deferred action program to stop deporting some undocumented young people. Those policies were met by some on the right with the claim that the administration doesn't care to enforce immigration law, a possible sticking point as the two sides seek to find an agreement.
The Migration Policy Institute found that border enforcement is, for the most part, working. Doris Meissner, director of immigration policy at the institute and a former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, told reporters on a conference call that she is somewhat baffled by the insistence that the U.S.-Mexico border is out of control, sometimes brought forth by people who want to block reform.
"I really don't know," Meissner said when asked why so many people say border enforcement is failing. "I do think a lot of it is just old, the standard imagery of people coming across the border, of the revolving door, of border patrol feeling besieged. Things just haven't caught up -- it's a disconnect."
CORRECTION: 9:50 p.m. -- An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Customs and Border Protection as Customs and Border Patrol. The article has been updated to correct the error.