Immigration by the numbers

FILE - In this June 25, 2014, file photo, a group of immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador, who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, are stopped in Granjeno, Texas. Illegal crossings along the Rio Grande have slowed dramatically since an overwhelming surge of immigrants had state and federal agents scrambling to secure the border earlier this year. But Texas leaders dont want their ground troops to leave just yet. An $86 million proposal would keep extra state troopers and the National Guard in South Texas through next August, prompting criticisms from local law enforcement who say the money would be better spent elsewhere. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

An estimated 11.3 undocumented immigrants live in the U.S. | AP Photo


11/25/14 12:29 PM EST

Updated 11/25/14 1:50 PM EST

Like most everything in Washington, President Barack Obama’s new executive order on immigration is not just about the law but the dollars to make it stick.

For the past decade, Congress has poured billions into enforcement efforts and succeeded in greatly increasing the level of deportations from the U.S. But given budget restraints, this drive has begun to top off near 400,000 removals a year, and Obama has seized this opening to begin his own reforms financed largely by private fees — not public appropriations.

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It’s almost a Tale of Two Cities: two sides of how government can respond to the resources available to it. And this dollar-and-cents equation is at the heart of the 33-page opinion prepared by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in support of the president’s action.

(VIDEO: Obama urges GOP to pass immigration bill)

With an estimated 11.3 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and little chance of deporting more than four to five percent each year, the memo argues that the president should have the discretion to grant some relief to what could be no more than a third of the 11.3 million in the end.

For all the angry threats of shutting the government, Obama has harnessed an agency, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, deemed immune from last year’s meltdown because 98 percent of its budget came from fees earned by processing applications for visas and work permits, for example.

A September 2013 advisory by the department of Homeland Security specifically cites USCIS as one office that “may continue during a lapse of appropriations.” And as much as Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is now raising alarms, those functions included the USCIS implementing Obama’s earlier executive order in 2012: the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA policy.

(Also on POLITICO: GOP leaders uniting around plan to avoid shutdown)

Indeed, this two-year DACA experience is telling of what lies ahead.

It’s estimated that just 60 percent to 70 percent of the eligible population has come forward, and data collected by USCIS shows that the numbers are heavily tilted toward those 19 and younger. Obama’s new order impacts an older set of immigrants, who can’t so easily find school records to prove their residence. The $465 application fee, counting the required fingerprint charge, is not small. And replicating even the DACA turnout will be an organizational challenge.

“The DACA population is substantially different,” said Audrey Singer, who has tracked the numbers as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

(VIDEO: Ted Cruz: Obama ‘counterfeiting immigration papers’)

But when compared with DACA, which was announced in June 2012 and begun hastily in August prior to the presidential elections, USCIS and DHS have allowed themselves a longer startup time of three to six months.

“The bottom line is DHS has been getting ready for this and has learned from the DACA experience,” said a senior administration official. “They know what they need to do to stand this up and they’ve given themselves several months to do it.”

Charles Kamasaki, a veteran leader at the National Council of La Raza going back to the 1980s, believes the immigrant community will also be better prepared. A special website is up and running to coordinate groups and assist applicants in tracking the tax and police records they will need to make their case.

(POLITICO Magazine: How Obama Dumped Hagel)

The fee costs are a real burden for many poor families, Kamasaki said, but the fact that an individual can now get a three-year work permit — not just two as under the first DACA round — is an added inducement.

Yet even Kamasaki, who is more bullish than some, speaks of a 75 percent response rate. Given early estimates that the eligible population is about 4.9 million, 75 percent would mean fewer than 3.7 million, or a third, of the total universe of 11.3 million.


All these estimates are just that: estimates. Homeland Security’s own records on the number of removals each year are suspect as well, critics say. Trying to get more exact numbers has been aggravated by the fact that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch of DHS continues to fight Freedom of Information requests from independent groups like the TRAC records clearinghouse project at Syracuse University.

But with these caveats, POLITICO looked back at the last decade to try to get some measure of the relationship between the increased spending for enforcement and the rise in the level of removals each year reported by DHS.

Two sets of appropriations accounts were tracked for fiscal years 2004-13: first, money designated for the Executive Office of Immigration Review, which oversees the immigration courts and second, the much larger “detention and removal” lines within ICE’s salaries and expenses budget.

The total of the two for 2004 was about $1.15 billion. By 2013, the same accounts topped $3 billion — more than double the 2004 level when measured in real, inflation-adjusted dollars.

In the same period, tables posted by the DHS show that the number of removals rose from 240,665 in 2004 to 438,421 in 2013. There were dips and spikes along the way, but also a relatively consistent pattern of how much was spent in these combined ICE and EOIR accounts vs. the number of persons DHS said it had deported.

For example, in each of the 10 years, POLITICO divided the total appropriations by the number of removals reported by DHS. When those cost numbers were then converted to 2013 dollars, the highs and lows were never more than $2,000 apart. The average for the 10 years came to about $7,130. The median or center of the range was $7,230.

This is only a crude exercise, but the numbers do appear to confirm the real costs of what’s required to greatly increase the level of already high removals each year. It’s not just speeches but dollars. And looking back over the 10-year period, the most rapid growth was in the stretch prior to the Great Recession, and Congress has been content with relatively level funding in recent years.

House Republicans would argue that Obama can’t complain about having inadequate resources, when his DHS budgets ask for even less than the GOP has provided for ICE accounts.

By the same token, the numbers show it would cost billions more than either party wants to spend right now to remove the very same millions whom Obama hopes will pay fees and take advantage of the temporary relief promised in his executive order.

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