Unprecedented Border Enforcement Proves Costly for Women, Children and Families

Last month, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) released its report "Immigration Enforcement in the United States." This report looked at how much the federal government's spending and programming for immigration enforcement since the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) has increased. The amount of money the United States has spent on immigration and border enforcement has skyrocketed in recent years as a result of the U.S.'s "enforcement first" approach to immigration. The report's findings are shocking. The U.S. government now spends more on immigration enforcement than on all other major federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined and immigration enforcement is the federal government's highest criminal law enforcement priority. Surprisingly, at a time when our government must be fiscally conservative and unauthorized immigration has abated, the call to increase spending on border enforcement is as loud as ever.

What does unprecedented enforcement spending actually mean for a vulnerable migrant seeking protection in the United States?

To a woman fleeing her home where the police won't protect her from her abusive husband it means being apprehended and screened by a Border Patrol officer who has less than two years of experience and has not yet received training on immigration law. MPI reported that dramatic growth of Border Patrol in recent years has made the level of officer experience, particularly mid-level supervisors, an ongoing concern. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found 39 percent of officers have less than two years of experience and while the agent to supervisor ratio should be 5-1, it is in fact 11-1. With such a large increase in Border Protection agents in such a short time, many agents have still not yet received training on immigration laws. The agent interviewing the domestic violence victim may not recognize she may have a legitimate asylum claim and erroneously return her to a potentially life-threatening situation. When the Women's Refugee Commission visited the border and spoke to agents, they were unable to tell us what they would do if they encountered a woman who appeared to have been sexually assaulted during her journey. They were also unable to tell us what kind of expressed fear might trigger further inquiry for a possible asylum claim.

To a parent coming back to the United States to reunite with their U.S. citizen child who was left behind in a foster home when the parent was deported it could mean being criminally prosecuted as part of Operation Streamline for reentering the United States after a removal. This parent could be charged with a misdemeanor or even a felony, which would mean a long jail sentence and the inability to legally migrate in the future to be with their child. The Women's Refugee Commission has encountered many women who are desperate to find their children whom they were forced to leave behind because our policies make reunification impossible.

To a family traveling together it means separation of the husband and wife immediately following apprehension. With almost 90 percent of migrants being subjected to what is known as a "consequence delivery system," designed to discourage future migration, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) may take the husband and put him through the Alien Transfer Exit Program, known as ATEP. This program would remove the husband to an area in Mexico far from where he had entered and far from the rest of his family. His wife may be returned to the area of Mexico where she had crossed into the United States, but she would not have any information as to what happened to her husband, where he will be sent to or how long it will take for them to reunify. She will likely have no money and will be left in an incredibly vulnerable situation while trying to reunite with him. We have spoken to women and children separated from their families and made extremely vulnerable to trafficking and crime through this process.

To a pregnant woman fleeing a forcible marriage to her rapist who asks for asylum when entering the country, mandatory detention laws require her to be held in a jail-like facility until she can have a credible fear interview. She may be held with other detainees who have contagious diseases and she may not have immediate access to appropriate prenatal care. Moreover, due to increased spending on enforcement and no correlating increase of spending on immigration courts, this woman could spend up to three years waiting for a resolution of her case. Examples of pregnant asylum seekers in unhealthy and traumatizing detention because of this practice are contained in two Women's Refugee Commission reports, Locking up Family Values and Migrant Women and Children at Risk: In Custody in Arizona.

To an unaccompanied child fleeing gang violence in his home country, it could mean being held in an overcrowded holding facility designed for adults while waiting for appropriate placement in a facility for children or with a family member. Holding facilities used to detain immigrants apprehended between ports of entry are designed to hold adults, not children. They are often cement cells with no access for outdoor recreation, have lights on 24 hours a day and may not even provide access to showers or clean clothes to children apprehended dirty, wet and cold from a treacherous crossing. We encountered many such children when we interviewed them for our report, Forced From Home: The Lost Boys and Girls of Central America.

Increased enforcement has affected both immigration policy and practice. It affects the way in which federal immigration agents are hired and trained, it affects what kinds of deterrence programs the government uses, it affects the government's ability to provide oversight and accountability of agents' actions and it affects the ways in which the United States upholds it obligations to ensure the rights of all people are respected. These changes are happening at a time when the profile of the typical person crossing the border is changing. MPI reports that 56 percent of today's border crossers are people who have crossed before and that these crossers are less likely to be deterred by government programs because they are often coming back to reunite with their family. Nearly two-thirds of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. have been in this country for a decade or longer. They are parents to U.S. citizen children, they are taxpayers and many of them are here seeking safety. They deserve to be treated humanely and fairly when arriving in our country. We need to make sure the incredible amount of money being spent on enforcement is spent with care to ensure efficient use of government resources and respect for basic human rights.

Co-authored by Michelle Brané, Director, and Jennifer Podkul, Program Officer, Detention and Asylum