Last year President Obama spent $11.7 billion on security at the U.S.-Mexico border—more than any of his predecessors, according to the Migration Policy Institute. That big of an investment might make you think illegal immigrants were storming the 2,000-mile stretch of desert that separates Texas and California from Mexico, but in fact, the opposite is true. The net migration between the U.S. and Mexico last year was zero, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Roughly 150,000 people, both illegal and legal, arrived in the U.S. from Mexico, and about the same number left the U.S. to return home.
There’s a big disconnect between those facts and the immigration debate that’s going on in Congress right now. Democrats say they want to continue spending record amounts on immigration enforcement as part of a deal that would give citizenship to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S. Republicans—including Senator Marco Rubio, who’s leading charge on immigration reform for his party—say they won’t consider an immigration proposal unless the U.S. spends whatever it takes to seal the border 100 percent.
A new study from my colleagues at Bloomberg Government estimates what that cost would be: $28 billion per year—or roughly the same amount taxpayers spend on the Department of Justice’s annual budget. According to the study, even with that extra $16 billion a year, the border wouldn’t be secured until 2019.
Considering that illegal immigration fluctuates—in 2007, for example, the Department of Homeland Security rounded up more than 850,000 people trying to enter the U.S. illegally—you have to wonder if there isn’t a third way to border security and an immigration deal. The Bloomberg Government study suggests that it’d be more sensible to cut spending at times when fewer immigrants are trying to cross, and increase it when they are.
The U.S. could achieve that flexibility in a few ways:
1) by hiring a temporary staff of border patrol agents who would be laid off in years when migration is low, a difficult prospect because the border patrol union would fight it;
2) by taking some of the expensive drones being used at the border and deploying them for other purposes at times when crossings are low;
3) by working to bulk up the 650-mile border fence only when there’s evidence that the tide of illegals is beginning to swell again.
Those are all ideas worth considering, but with both parties clamoring for more spending even as agency budgets are shrinking, finding a third way doesn’t look promising.