(RNN) - Republicans and Democrats disagree over what to do regarding immigration reform, but there's one thing both sides seem to agree on: increased border security spending.
But some say throwing money at the border does more harm than good.
When it comes to spending money on border security, the U.S. government hasn't been skimpy. In the 26 years since Ronald Reagan signed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act that gave amnesty to nearly 3 million illegal immigrants, immigration enforcement spending has increased by 1,500 percent for an estimated total of nearly $200 billion.
Today, the U.S. spends $18 billion a year on immigration enforcement - more than the FBI, DEA, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service, and ATF combined, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Meanwhile, illegal immigration has vastly increased overall since Reagan's 1986 amnesty law, with the only slight decreases coming in the years after 2006 - something many attribute to the poor economy, not border security.
But despite the big spending with questionable results, more money is being sought for the border.
In Obama's immigration reform draft, the proposal calls for "investing" in border security technology, implementing border-crossing fees and raising inspection fees.
The proposal even suggests a plan for Homeland Security to "accept donations" from citizens, businesses, and local governments.
Republicans have blasted Obama's proposal as a whole, but early evidence suggests they seem to have a lot in common.
In a bipartisan "statement of principles" on how to achieve immigration reform drafted by four Democrats and four Republicans, including Sens. Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, Jeff Flake and John McCain, each call for "increased efforts of the Border Patrol by providing them with the latest technology, infrastructure, and personnel needed to prevent, detect, and apprehend every unauthorized entrant."
And despite public concern over spending, politicians are not doing anything the people don't want. According to a Gallup poll, 68 percent of voters favor increased border security spending as a way to stop illegal immigration.
But if more border security is seen as an effective way to stop illegal immigration, why hasn't it been stopped?
People go where jobs are, despite border security
"The migration flow is still essentially determined by the unemployment rate in the United States," said Dr. Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, a professor of Chicana/o Studies at UCLA who has studied the link between economics and immigration. "They're only coming to the extent that there are jobs available. And if there are no jobs available because there is high unemployment, they don't come."
The theory that the poor U.S. economy has been a better prevention of illegal immigration than the Border Patrol has been talked about in recent years and is backed up by numbers.
After nearly 50 years of a steady increase in immigration from Mexico, the first noticeable decrease occurred in 2006, when the U.S. housing market collapsed, according to statistics from the Pew Hispanic Center.
Each year after 2006, the number of Mexican immigrants (legal and illegal) to the U.S. decreased, and the Mexican-born population in the U.S. slightly decreased for the first time in decades.
The U.S. government might give credit for those drops to its increased enforcement, and the Pew study cites the vast increase in border militarization and immigration enforcement as reasons for the decrease in immigrants.
But regardless of the reason, Hinojosa says it's possible to spend less money and get better effects.
In a study by the Cato Institute, a libertarian conservative-leaning think tank, Hinojosa claims IRCA had positive short-term effects in the 10 years after its implementation by allowing the laws of supply and demand to deal with immigration.
According to the study, legalizing illegal immigrants caused productivity levels to rise because of a legal work environment.
The study also claims that illegal immigration decreased because the influx of legal workers decreased the demand for illegal labor, which causes wages to rise.
"Simply by legalizing people, you stop the flow," Hinojosa said. "First of all, people can now cross 'legally' by definition. And when you create a legal environment for people to have jobs, the wages go up in the U.S. And when the price of something goes up, the demand goes down."
Hinojosa added that legalized workers eventually cause beneficial ripple effects through the rest of the economy by producing more goods and services. Not only is money saved by spending less on border and immigration enforcement, but according to the Cato study, a legalization program would add $1.5 trillion to the gross domestic product over 10 years.
Anti-amnesty group denies too much is spent on border security
Even amnesty opponents agree that legalizing millions of workers would increase GDP. But the question is how much and whether or not it would be greater than the cost of adding millions more people to the "legal" economy.
Steven Camarota, Director of Research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a group argues against amnesty, has different numbers than Hinojosa.
He says that even though illegal immigrants help grow the economy and use less in social services while paying more in taxes than many people think, they create a fiscal deficit of approximately $10 billion per year. That number is mostly due to medical treatment, according to CIS.
And if amnesty were enacted, Camarota says, the deficit would grow to nearly $30 billion per year.
"At that point," Camarota said, "the cost of consumption is greater than the economic benefit."
But would the $30 billion cost be cushioned by spending less on border enforcement? Not so, says Camarota, who believes the Migration Policy Institute's estimate of immigration enforcement spending were exaggerated by including routine customs inspections and other similar non-immigration enforcement numbers.
"We don't spend too much on the border. We spend it on the wrong things," he said. "It's like securing your home by spending a fortune on fancy door locks, but completely ignoring the windows."
Camarota says additional money should be spent on fences, more armed guards, more cameras, and swifter deportations. And in his opinion, those are things IRCA did not do enough of, which allowed more immigrants to cross the border illegally.
Free market solution to illegal immigration?
Hinojosa agrees that IRCA did not work in creating a long-term solution, but he says a lack of border security wasn't the problem.
"What IRCA got wrong is it did not create a future flows formula - an ability to have people come over legally based on the needs of the labor market," he said.
By preparing for economic upturns that would create a demand for immigrant labor, Hinojosa says an improved visa system would satisfy the demand for immigrant labor, generate tax revenue, and save vast amounts of money spent on illegal immigration enforcement.
"We could have saved ourselves billions of dollars and just basically fixed the problem by getting a visa system that's very in tune with having the right number of visas available for the actual number of jobs in the economy," he said.
Had that been done, Hinojosa believes, IRCA would not be so controversial today and a free market approach, rather than militarization and enforcement, would be better accepted.
"The most brilliant thing that Reagan did was let the market work. Give people rights and let the market work. That's classic, conservative principles," Hinojosa said.
Copyright 2013 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved.
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