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Measuring the Metrics: Grading the Government on Immigration Enforcement

Border security is one of the most contentious issues in the immigration reform debate. Since the 1986 passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, real spending on immigration enforcement has grown sevenfold, and now constitutes nearly half of all federal law enforcement spending. Despite significant investments, the federal government has failed to develop a comprehensive system of performance indicators that measure the effectiveness of its efforts to combat unauthorized immigration. The lack of consistent, widely accepted accountability measures for border security and interior enforcement contributes to the disagreements over the state of immigration enforcement and impacts the ongoing immigration reform debate.

Over the years, both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and independent researchers have developed methodologies and identified data sources that could be used to measure the government’s success?or failure?at preventing unauthorized immigration. Government metrics have not always been publicly reported, and agencies have been reluctant to adopt measures developed by outside researchers. After reviewing the data and methodologies available to the government and in academia, the Bipartisan Policy Center suggests a slate of metrics that, if used and reported, would constitute an objective set of comprehensive, outcome-based performance measures.

Key takeaways include:

  • Need for consistent, credible measures. Federal immigration agencies have frequently adopted new performance measures, only to drop them a few years later. The lack of stable measures undermines the ability to assess the effectiveness of efforts to combat unauthorized immigration.
  • Need for broad outcome measurements. Assessments of U.S. immigration enforcement too often rely on input measures, such as the amount of funding, the number of agents deployed, or miles of fencing. Instead, outcome measures are necessary to judge whether federal agencies are meeting overall immigration enforcement goals.
  • Data and methodologies are already available. The lack of adequate performance reporting generally does not reflect a lack of data. Over the past few decades, DHS and external researchers have invested significant resources in collecting a wealth of data and developing methodologies to measure immigration enforcement outcomes, but federal agencies have not taken full advantage of the potential benefit provided by further analysis and reporting.
  • The migrant’s incentives matter. The incentive structure behind a migrant’s decision to come to the United States provides important context for interpreting enforcement metrics and establishing goals. The ultimate tool?to determine the appropriate resource allocations for immigration enforcement?would be an integrated model that links migration decisions, U.S. policy levers that affect migration incentives, and outcome measures.
  • Congress should provide clear reporting requirements. In order to hold relevant federal agencies accountable, Congress should require consistent and stable reporting on the state of immigration enforcement based on a set of comprehensive, outcome-based performance measures such as those outlined in this paper.
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