Tax Day is a fitting time to consider the billions of dollars which the federal government wastes each year attempting to put a stop to unauthorized immigration through an “enforcement only” strategy—and the billions of new taxpayer dollars which would flow from comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to legal status for unauthorized immigrants already in the United States. As the IPC points out in a new fact sheet, “we spend huge sums of taxpayer money on immigration enforcement, yet unauthorized immigrants have not been deterred from coming to the United States when there are jobs available.” As a result, enforcement resources are needlessly wasted tracking down unauthorized job seekers and people trying to reunite with family members in the United States, rather than focused on finding individuals who are actually a threat to national security or public safety.

Since Fiscal Year (FY) 2004, the budgets of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—the border-enforcement and interior-enforcement components of Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—have increased dramatically. CBP’s budget grew from $6 billion in FY 2004 to $11.4 billion in FY 2010, while ICE’s budget increased from $3.7 billion to $5.7 billion over the same period. Moreover, since FY 2005, Congress has allocated $2.4 billion to build fences along the southwest border—and another $1.1 billion to build a high-tech network of cameras and sensors known as “SBInet.” However, there is no evidence that the fences actually deter unauthorized immigrants, and SBInet has been plagued by technical glitches, shoddy testing, and missed deadlines since its inception. On March 16, 2010, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano froze SBInet funding, pending the outcome of a comprehensive review of the program.

Despite these ballooning enforcement expenditures, unauthorized immigration continues unabated. Research by Wayne Cornelius at the University of California, San Diego, has found that while unauthorized migrants from Mexico may be caught on their first attempt at crossing the border, they have an almost 100 percent chance of eventual success—particularly if they enlist the services of a coyote, or people smuggler. Moreover, as border enforcement is tightened between ports of entry along the southwest border, more migrants are being smuggled through ports of entry (sealed in a compartment within a vehicle, or as a passenger with false or borrowed documents). Research by Cornelius has also found that unauthorized migration from Mexico has diminished mainly because there are fewer jobs available in the United States.

In contrast to the expensive failure of the enforcement-only approach, comprehensive immigration reform would generate new tax revenue. Granting legal status to currently unauthorized immigrants, for instance, would boost their wages and increase their tax contributions even in the short run. A January 2010 study by Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, conducted for the IPC and Center for American Progress, estimates that during the first three years after legalization, the higher earning power of newly legalized workers “would generate $4.5 to $5.4 billion in additional net tax revenue.” In a related vein, a January 2010 study from the University of Southern California estimates that because unauthorized immigrants earn less than they would if they had legal status, the California state government lost out on $310 million in income taxes in 2009, while the federal government missed out on $1.4 billion.

The alternative to legalization—deportation—would be a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. A March 2010 study by the Center for American Progress “calculates a price tag of $200 billion to enforce a federal dragnet that would snare the estimated 10.8 million undocumented immigrants in the United States over five years.” And this does not even begin to capture the social and economic destruction that would be wrought on communities and businesses nationwide by attempting to round up millions of men, women, and children.

Video by the Center for American Progress.