University at Albany

The Politics of Border Control

by Rey Koslowski, PhD

Comprehensive immigration reform provides a chance for Congress to make U.S. border control policy more effective in reducing illegal immigration by allocating more resources to worksite inspections that enforce employer sanctions against hiring unauthorized migrant workers. Unfortunately, Congress is, once again, missing this opportunity.

Rey Koslowski, PhD
The Senate's comprehensive immigration reform legislation is stalled in the House despite unprecedented levels of border security funding. Over 90 percent of the $49.3 billion of funding in the bill is dedicated to border security, primarily for more border patrol agents and border fencing. The original package of reform legislation shepherded through the Senate Judiciary Committee by the "Gang of Eight" included over $8 billion of border security funding. After the bill's supporters could not convince enough of their Republican colleagues to vote for the bill without enhancing border security measures, bill sponsors became willing to increase the border security budget to whatever it would take to get a sufficient number of Republican votes to surpass the 60-vote threshold to end debate and give the bill the necessary momentum in the House. Senators who initially voiced opposition to the bill as it was introduced, but indicated that they might be persuaded, held out for a massive increase in funding to hire 19,400 additional border patrol agents — doubling the number of agents — and to build, repair and maintain border fencing. It worked and the bill passed with 68 votes.

While the American way of border control focuses on the thin line of the border itself, border control and immigration law enforcement activities in most European countries typically occur not only in the border regions but also throughout the country. For example, interior and labor ministry officials frequently audit employers and conduct worksite inspections, often supported by teams of national, regional and local law enforcement officers. It is much more difficult for unauthorized migrants to work in the EU than in the U.S. The EU has a population of 500 million and an estimated 1.9 to 3.8 million unauthorized migrants. The U.S. has a population of 300 million and an estimated 11 million unauthorized migrants. Of these 11 million, an estimated 8 million are employed. There are six million U.S. employers — that is a ratio of about 1.3 unauthorized migrant workers to each employer in the U.S.

Both the Democratic and Republican Party leadership have acknowledged employer demand to be a major, if not the foremost, driver of illegal migration. Nevertheless, Congress and successive administrations have chosen not to increase budgetary resources devoted to worksite enforcement at anywhere near the rate of increase in funding for border security. Building fences and increasing the number of law enforcement jobs in border states are simply much more politically popular than hiring more officers to arrest U.S. employers who themselves may be voting constituents.

The Obama administration has stepped up enforcement of sanctions against employers who knowingly hire unauthorized migrants. For example, the 495 fines levied against employers in 2012 numbered more than all the fines issued in the eight years of George W. Bush's presidency. However, even if the number of fines were to be doubled or tripled, the odds of employers getting caught employing unauthorized immigrants are very low. Given that employing less expensive unauthorized migrant workers can increase annual profits considerably, even if employers do get caught, the risk of incurring fines of several thousand dollars can be considered a cost of doing business.

Increasing investments in worksite enforcement, prosecuting law-breaking employers and reducing the demand for unauthorized migrant workers should reduce illegal migration much more than increasing the already high spending on border patrol staffing and border fences. Too many members of Congress are not really serious about reducing illegal immigration. They are more concerned about the symbolic politics of fence building.

Rey Koslowski is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Rockefeller College. Dr. Koslowski's primary teaching and research interests are in the area of international relations dealing with international organization, European integration, international migration, information technology, and homeland security. He is the author of Migrants and Citizens: Demographic Change in the European State System, editor of International Migration and the Globalization of Domestic Politics and co-editor (with David Kyle) of Global Human Smuggling: Comparative Perspectives. He has held fellowships at the Transatlantic Academy at the German Marshall Fund, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Center of International Studies at Princeton University, and the Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University.

This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2013 Rockefeller College News Magazine.