Why Can’t We Stop Unauthorized Immigration? Because It Works.


Periodically, American presidents have tried to release pressure from these systems by granting amnesty or temporary protection from deportation to large groups of migrants, as Biden recently did for Venezuelans. But these are short-term Band-Aids that do little to affect the ongoing causes of illegal immigration and still leave millions of workers vulnerable to abuse.

Congress, for its part, has proved itself incapable of passing the kind of legislation necessary to recalibrate the economic incentives. Though five major immigration reform bills have been brought to a vote since 2006, none of them made it through both the House and the Senate. To be fair, perhaps no single legislative act or executive order could ever change these dynamics. But some people have suggested targeted measures that could make unauthorized migration less chaotic, less exploitative and less profitable to unscrupulous actors.

The National Association of Immigration Judges has made a strong case for increasing the funding for immigration courts. There are now more than 2.5 million cases pending in these courts, and their average processing time is four years. To handle this backlog, the nation has fewer than 700 immigration-court judges. According to Mimi Tsankov, president of the association, this disparity between manpower and caseload is the primary reason many immigration cases, especially complex asylum cases, take years to resolve. To speed processing times, Tsankov explained, the courts need more judges but also more interpreters, legal assistants and law clerks. Improved efficiency would benefit those who merit asylum. Others say that it would also decrease the incentive to submit frivolous asylum claims in order to reside legally in the United States while waiting for an application to be denied.

Among academics, another idea keeps resurfacing: a deadline for deportations. Most crimes in America have a statute of limitations, Mae Ngai, a professor of history at Columbia University, noted in an opinion column for The Washington Post. The statute of limitations for noncapital terrorism offenses, for example, is eight years. Before the 1924 Immigration Act, Ngai wrote in her book about the history of immigration policy, the statute of limitations for deportations was at most five years. Returning to this general principle, at least for migrants who have no significant criminal record, would allow ICE officers and immigration judges to focus on the recent influx of unauthorized migrants. A deadline could also improve labor conditions for all Americans because, as Ngai wrote, “it would go a long way toward stemming the accretion of a caste population that is easily exploitable and lives forever outside the polity.”

One of the most curious aspects of American immigration politics is that Congress tends to invest heavily in immigration enforcement but not in the enforcement of labor laws that could dissuade businesses from exploiting unauthorized workers in the first place. Congress more than doubled the annual budgets for ICE and C.B.P. from 2006 to 2021. At the same time, it kept the budgets for the three federal agencies most responsible for preventing workplace abuse — OSHA, the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board — essentially flat. There are now only 750 Department of Labor investigators responsible for the country’s 11 million workplaces. “As absurd as it sounds, the enforcement of labor standards is a very controversial thing to do in this country,” David Weil, the former administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, told me earlier this year. The laws needed to protect the interests of workers are already on the books, he said; the Department of Labor just needs funding adequate to enforce them.


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