The War on Drugs appears to be winding down, and the vast majority of Americans seem think that it hasn’t been a success. A majority also would like to see marijuana legalized. Many states have already taken steps to decriminalize or even legalize. With full legalization under way for the first time in Washington and Colorado, the legal justification for this trillion dollar fiasco is slowly disintegrating.
But while this war winds down, America is ramping up a war that as every bit as destructive, not targeting plants and chemicals but immigrants and those who associate with them. Starting in the early 1990s, the border has grown heavily militarized. The peaceful cross-border cyclical migrant traffic has been replaced by hundreds of miles of fencing, walls, towers, drones, and agents–a lot of agents, 20,000 to be exact, slightly less than the 28,000 U.S. soldiers on the Korean border.
Border Patrol is the largest armed U.S. law enforcement agency, and its strategy has been to force migrants into the most dangerous parts of the Arizona and Texas deserts, where they die by the hundreds each year. Border agents have also killed 21 directly. By driving up the costs of crossing, the strategy has sent desperate workers and deported family members into the hands of drug cartels who extract huge crossing fees.
All this enforcement is spilling into the U.S. interior as well. Immigration checkpoints proliferate throughout the Southwest United States. New technology allows DHS to check the immigration status of anyone arrested by local police without the locality’s knowledge. Localities that have joined in willingly have also tended to racially profile. By the year’s end, President Obama will have “rounded up” and expelled more than 2 million individuals from the United States. The administration argues it is only to targeting criminals, but in 2012, nearly half of aliens taken into custody by ICE had no criminal record at all (47.7%) or had no record other than traffic offenses and illegal entry (55.6%). Between 2008 to 2012, 77.4% had no criminal record.
Immigration arrests have already overtaken drug crimes as the Justice Department’s top priority. In 2013, nearly two-thirds of all federal criminal convictions were for immigration offenses: illegal entry and illegal reentry. Since 1995, the average daily population of immigrants in detention awaiting removal has increased from 7,500 to over 33,000. Many of these are jailed for years with no opportunity for a hearing and with no right to counsel “in the nation’s most secret detention system.” 131 of them have died in detention since 2003.
At the same time, the administration has ramped up enforcement activities targeting employers as well—setting records for employer fines and audits. It has aggressively pushed employers to use E-Verify (electronic national ID), which now checks the work authorization and tracks the movement and employment for more than 20 million U.S. workers each year using the Social Security Administration’s database.
Naturally all of this has a major price tag. America’s deportation machine is already the number one law enforcement expense for the federal government. According to the Migration Policy Institute, headed by former-INS administrator Doris Meissner, the U.S. spends almost $18 billion annually on its immigration enforcement apparatus—more than all other law enforcement expenditures combined.
And it will likely get worse after immigration reform. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that the Senate immigration bill would increase the federal prison population by 14,000 inmates a year, at a cost of $3.1 billion over the next decade. It would also finance a $46 billion “border surge” that would double the number of border patrol agents from 20,000 to 40,000, and dump additional billions of dollars into drones and other border surveillance.
As if to prove things can always get worse, the GOP-controlled House Judiciary Committee has found two more ways to transform the War on Immigrants into the new War on Drugs: create prison sentences for merely being in the US illegally, and unleash states and localities enforce it. The SAFE Act, was passed by the Committee last June, would impose up to a 6 month sentence for every 6 months of unlawful presence. The CBO estimates that SAFE would cost $22 billion over five years, averaging up to $2.5 billion annually to reimburse states for detention facilities.
But even this figure excludes the fact that the bill also authorizes states and localities to impose the same sentences and penalties as the federal government, meaning that just like drug laws, every state and municipality could conduct its own immigration raids. Worse still, thanks to an expansion of civil asset forfeiture and the lure of DHS grants, SAFE would provide huge financial incentives for local police to prosecute immigration crimes. In fact, one provision (of dubious constitutionality) would actually condition FEMA funding on states actively pursuing undocumented immigrants.
As The Atlantic’s Mike Riggs notes, it’s strange to see the GOP take this approach, even as it’s turning away from the worst excess of the Drug War: mandatory minimum sentencing. Indeed, some of the very same congressmen who sponsored the SAFE Act are also seeking to limit mandatory minimums for drug crimes–yet SAFE would impose a vast array of new minimum sentences for victimless immigration violations.
SAFE is the culmination of all of the worst criminal policies of the last generation, simply retasked for a new “war,” while it conscripts states and cities as footsoldiers in the federal war on immigrants. As America abandons its worst policy experiment of the last five decades, let’s learn from the experience, rather than trade one destructive war for another.