Does the United States Need to Invest More in Border Enforcement?

Donald Kerwin
Center for Migration Studies
Robert Warren
Center for Migration Studies

Photo credit: Photografeus / Shutterstock

Does the United States Need to Invest More in Border Enforcement?

The Trump administration came into office at a time when illegal border crossings from Mexico had been reduced to one-fourth from their historic highs and the US undocumented population had been falling for a decade. At present, the administration enjoys the largest immigration enforcement budget in US history, but in fiscal year (FY) 2019 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is on track to apprehend the highest numbers of border crossers in more than a decade. In both March and April, the Border Patrol recorded more than 100,000 apprehensions at the US-Mexico border. Its border enforcement strategies are failing on their own terms and, until the United States reassesses its overall immigration and refugee policies, further enforcement funding would be throwing good money after bad.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) needs increased staffing and better infrastructure at certain ports of entry (POEs), where large quantities of illegal narcotics enter the country and illegal firearms and drug proceeds leave it. It may also need to expand its capacity to respond in real time to changed migration patterns. However, lack of resources does not explain the administration’s failures. Rather, it is its failure to respond adequately to the conditions driving Central American and (increasingly) Venezuelan migrants, to provide legal pathways to protection for those fleeing violence and other impossible conditions, and to create a strong, well-resourced US asylum system.[1]

Historically Unprecedented Immigration Enforcement Spending

In 1990, the total appropriation to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) — for both immigration enforcement and adjudication of applications — was $1.2 billion. By 2018, the enacted budgets of the two DHS immigration enforcement agencies, CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), equaled a combined $23.8 billion (DHS 2019, 21, 27). This figure does not include the significant immigration enforcement responsibilities and expenditures of: (1) US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which primarily adjudicates immigration applications; (2) the Department of State (DOS), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and other federal agencies; (3) the federal criminal justice system, which prosecutes and adjudicates a high volume of illegal entry and re-entry offenses (TRAC 2017, 2018); and (4) the many states and localities officially delegated by ICE to enforce US immigration laws through programs like 287(g) (ICE 2018). While enforcement expenditures have increased, investments in the USCIS Asylum Corps and the Immigration Court system have lagged badly behind, leading to massive case backlogs and long delays in adjudicating cases (Kerwin 2018).

The president’s budget for 2020 would increase combined CBP and ICE funding to $30.2 billion (DHS 2019, 21, 27). Moreover, the Trump administration has set “operational control” — defined as “the prevention of all unlawful entries”[2] — as its overarching border enforcement goal and metric. Because unattainable, this goal positions the administration to argue that border enforcement resources — however much they are increased — do not suffice, and to respond to its own failures by insisting on additional enforcement funding and ever more divisive and cruel enforcement tactics, like separating children from their parents.

According to a study by the Migration Policy Institute, the funding and staffing levels of CBP and ICE exceed the combined levels of the four major DOJ law enforcement agencies (Meissner et al. 2013). These two agencies also receive many times more in funding than the three main US labor standards and workplace protection entities and all the state labor standards agencies combined.

The Changed Composition of Border Crossers, the Diminishing US Unauthorized Population, and the Border Wall

On February 15, 2019, the President declared a national emergency at the US-Mexico border which, if it withstands legal scrutiny, will allow the administration to redirect an estimated $8 billion appropriated for other purposes, primarily from the Department of Defense, to extending the wall at the US-Mexico border. The proposed increases follow years of dramatically reduced arrivals across the border that have transformed the US undocumented population.

Apprehensions at the border – which include multiple entries of the same person – dropped from more than 1.6 million in 2000 to about 300,000 in 2017. Between 2010 and 2017, the total undocumented population fell from 11,725,000 to 10,665,000 (Warren 2019). These multi-year downward trends, of course, preceded the Trump administration and have nothing to do with its policies. Moreover, since 2010, the number of persons that illegally crossed the border has been roughly one-half the number that entered legally and overstayed their visas (ibid.). This trend undermines the case for a border wall or for large funding increases for the Border Patrol, which more than doubled in size between 2000 and 2017 (CBP 2017, a, b).

Beginning in FY 2014 and continuing through FY 2019, immense numbers of unaccompanied children and families, primarily from the Northern Triangle states of Central America, have been driven to the United States, Mexico, and elsewhere by some of the world’s highest homicide rates, rampant extortion and conscription by gangs, criminal impunity, and intense poverty (Labrador and Renwick 2018). The number of migrants from Venezuela — a country in economic free fall and with very high rates of violent crime — has also increased sharply in recent years. Honduras, Venezuela, El Salvador, and Guatemala rank among the nations with world’s highest intentional homicide rates at 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 6th respectively (World Atlas 2018).  Many of these migrants have sought asylum in the United States, but mostly they are seeking protection wherever they can find it. They do not try to evade detection, but present themselves to Border Patrol agents or to CBP officials at POEs. CBP adds them to its “apprehension” statistics, as if they were criminals, but they have the legal right to seek asylum under both domestic and international law.

Enforcement-Only Approaches Are Counterproductive

Notwithstanding its extraordinary border enforcement budget, the Trump administration has presided over the highest numbers of border crossers in a decade. After peaking in 2000 and with the exception of a slight surge in FY 2014, arrests at the US-Mexico border were at or below 400,000 between 2011 and 2018.  Over the first six months of FY 2019, however, Border Patrol apprehensions spiked to more than 361,000 (CBP 2019). Additional enforcement funding will do nothing to address the humanitarian crises compelling hundreds of thousands of persons to seek protection for themselves and their children, however slim the odds of finding it.

Human smugglers should not be viewed as a cause of this crisis, but as a symptom of bad policies. Some smugglers commit unspeakable acts. Others do not and enjoy the trust of members of migrant-sending communities. In any event, migrants mostly understand the risks of migrating and do not make decisions based solely on what smuggling facilitators tell them. Dr. Gabriella Sanchez, Migrant Smuggling Research Fellow at the European University Institute, reports that potential migrants “gather as much information as they can from friends, family members, clergy, media, and smugglers themselves, and make their decisions based on what they learn.”  Moreover, they are not cavalier about their children’s safety. They are willing to subject themselves to greater risks than they would others, particularly their loved ones (Slack and Martinez 2018).

By all accounts, the administration’s policies have been a boon to smugglers. The administration has failed to provide legal avenues for the truly desperate to reach protection, both persons fleeing violence and formerly deported persons seeking to return to their US families.[3] Instead, it has erected new barriers to the US asylum system, separated parents from their children at the border, enacted unsustainable and cruel “zero tolerance” criminal prosecution policies for asylum seekers and other border crossers, and terminated the Central American Minors (CAM) program which allowed El Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran children to undergo refugee screening in their own countries and, if approved, to join their legally present parents living in United States as refugees or parolees. At a time of record numbers of refugees worldwide, it has limited refugee admissions to the lowest number in the history of the US Refugee Assistance Program and sought to eviscerate the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, which allows designated national groups who cannot safely return home to remain in the United States.

These actions have been accompanied by the President’s threats to end foreign aid to Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras for “doing nothing” to stop migration to the United States, his repeated promises to enact ever “tougher” enforcement policies, and by his poisonous anti-immigrant rhetoric. With no legal options to migrate, little hope that conditions will improve in their home communities, and assurance (by the US president) that US policies will become more severe — most recently through threats to charge fees to apply for asylum, to deny bond and work authorization to asylum seekers, or to accelerate court hearings — large numbers have chosen not to wait at home (Wasem 2019). More border enforcement funding will do nothing to change this dynamic.


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that in 2017 there were 68.5 million forcibly displaced persons, including 25.4 million refugees (UNHCR 2018); that developing regions hosted 85 percent of them; and that increasing numbers of asylum seekers were fleeing Northern Central America and Venezuela (UNHCR 2018, 7, 40). These trends have grown more acute in the interim. On December 17, 2018, UN member states — albeit not the United States — affirmed the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), which seeks to support communities in developing states that host refugees, promote refugee self-reliance, expand their legal access to third countries, and allow for their safe and dignified return home (UNGA 2019, § 7). Not all of the migrants from the Northern Triangle states of Central America, Venezuela, or other global hotspots meet the narrow refugee definition, but very high percentages of them have been forced from their homes by unsafe and untenable conditions.

The United States would be well served by the kind of holistic strategy and commitments promoted by the GCR. The nation’s current enforcement-only approach will not improve conditions so that refugees and others at risk can stay or return home. Nor will it support their safe resettlement in other communities, afford them fair and timely asylum hearings, or allow them to reach safety through legal channels. It will make this humanitarian crisis worse, and do nothing to stop desperate people from crossing borders.

This essay was slightly edited for clarity on December 5, 2021.

[1] Although not the subject of this essay, many scholars and lawyers have also reported on the immense population of deportees from the United States that plan to return to their US families (Kerwin, Alulema, and Nicholson 2018) despite the risk of prosecution, detention, and removal. One study concluded that US immigration enforcement programs will inevitably fail “when placed against the powerful pull of family and home” (Martinez, Slack, and Martinez-Schuldt 2018).

[2] Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements, Exec. Order No. 13767, 82 Fed. Reg. 8793 (Jan. 25, 2017).

[3] Of course, in any large-scale migrant flow, there will be persons with different intentions and motivations, making screening a necessity.


CBP (US Customs and Border Protection). 2017a. “ Southwest Border Sectors: Total Illegal Alien Apprehensions by Fiscal Year (Oct. 1st through Sept. 30th).” Washington, DC: CBP.

———. 2017b. “US Border Patrol Fiscal Year Staffing Statistics (FY 1992 – FY 2017).” Washington, DC: CBP.

———. 2019. “US Border Patrol Southwest Border Apprehensions FY 2019.” Washington, DC: CBP.

DHS (US Department of Homeland Security). 2019. FY 2020 Budget in Brief. Washington, DC: DHS.

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Meissner, Doris, Donald Kerwin, Muzaffar Chishti, and Claire Bergeron. 2013. “Immigration Enforcement in the United States: the Rise of a Formidable Machinery.” Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

Slack, Jeremy, and Daniel E. Martinez. 2018. “What Makes a Good Human Smuggler?  The Differences between Satisfaction with and Recommendations of Coyotes on the US-Mexico Border.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 676(1): 152-73.

TRAC (Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. 2017. “Criminal Immigration Prosecutions Down 14% in FY 2017.” Syracuse, NY: TRAC.

———. 2018. “Stepped Up Illegal-Entry Prosecutions Reduce Those for Other Crimes.” Syracuse NY: TRAC.

UNGA (United National General Assembly). 2018. Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: Part II Global Compact on Refugees. UN Doc. A/73/12 (Part II). New York, NY: United Nations.

UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). 2018. Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017. Geneva: UNHCR.

Warren, Robert. 2019. “US Undocumented Population Continued to Fall from 2016 to 2017 and Visa Overstays Significantly Exceeded Illegal Crossings for the Seventh Consecutive Year.” Journal on Migration and Human Security 6(1): 1-4.

Wasem, Ruth Ellen. 2019. “To solve the US ‘crisis at the border,’ look to its cause.” The Hill, April 4.

World Atlas.  2018. “Murder Rate by Country.”

Author Names

Donald Kerwin and Robert Warren

Date of Publication May 16, 2019
DOI 10.14240/cmsesy051619