An open letter to GOP hopefuls on border security

Ali Noorani Executive Director, National Immigration Forum
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Dear GOP candidates:

You have two options during tonight’s national security debate when the inevitable immigration enforcement question comes up: Entertain voters with tall tales of tall fences or offer voters reasoned, practical solutions that will keep us secure and restore our economy.

Given the involvement of the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute — who are joining CNN to moderate the debate — I don’t think the hosts will settle for simplistic talking points and false promises. In fact, questioners and audience members alike will be listening for fiscally responsible solutions to protect our nation and reduce the deficit.

Luckily for you, the National Immigration Forum’s new report, “Cut Here: Reducing Wasteful Spending on Immigration Enforcement,” offers the bottom line you are looking for: The United States could save as much as $2.6 billion per year by implementing common-sense enforcement reforms that focus on real threats to the nation.

I imagine you are pretty busy, so I thought I’d offer five fact-based talking points.

First of all, surprise your questioners by joining Latino, immigrant and liberal voters’ astonishment that the Obama administration has presided over one million deportations, outpacing the Bush administration.

Talking point #1: One million changes none of us expected.

As you can imagine, it costs a lot of money — $23,000 per person — to deport one million people. The Fiscal Year 2012 DHS appropriations bill passed by the House allots a staggering $11.8 billion for Customs and Border Protection and $5.5 billion for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

We found that in 2010 the federal government spent $4.5 billion deporting nearly 200,000 individuals who had no criminal records. Taxpayers could save over $4.4 million a night if ICE only detained individuals who had committed violent crimes.

Talking point #2: Focus immigration enforcement resources on violent criminals, not busboys and farm workers, to save taxpayers over $1.6 billion a year.

Since 2006, we have spent nearly $60 billion on border security. The year-after-year increase in the Border Patrol budget, combined with the much smaller number of persons attempting to cross illegally, has increased the cost per apprehension to $7,500 per person, a 500% increase since 2005. With crime rates in the border region and unlawful cross-border traffic at historic lows, we really shouldn’t be spending new money on an old problem.

Talking point #3: El Paso, Texas, which is located just feet from one of the most dangerous places in the world, Ciudad Juarez, is now one of the safest cities in America. Another change we didn’t expect.

Washington is infatuated with fences but ignores land ports of entry, creating weaknesses drug cartels eagerly exploit. Between 1993 and 2010, the budget for ports of entry increased 17%, while the Border Patrol budget increased 875%.

Not surprisingly, experts estimate that just 30% of those attempting to illegally enter the United States at ports of entry are caught, versus a 70% apprehension rate between ports of entry. Meanwhile, it is estimated that 90% of illegal drugs — and nearly all bulk cash and illegal guns — cross into the U.S. at ports of entry.

Talking point #4: We are all against bridges to nowhere, so let’s agree we are against fences about nothing. Focus our border resources where the threat is real.

Most importantly, tonight’s debate can lead to a solution that cuts spending and raises revenue — without raising taxes.

In 2009, the Cato Institute issued a report, “Restriction or Legalization? Measuring the Economic Benefits of Immigration Reform,” laying out research that found that requiring unauthorized immigrants to legalize their status would have a positive impact on the welfare of U.S. households equaling 1.27% of GDP, or $180 billion. This is a no-brainer.

Talking point #5: Let’s make taxpayers out of everyone, and require unauthorized immigrants to legalize their statuses, learn English and pass criminal background checks. This will increase our tax base and allow law enforcement agencies to focus their valuable resources on national security threats.

Tonight represents an opportunity to take a new approach to national security and immigration enforcement. Don’t follow the path of a broken Washington, D.C. by spending ever-greater sums on enforcement that is neither smart nor effective.

Voters are tired of tall tales when it comes to immigration. Be presidential: Give voters reasoned and reasonable immigration solutions that move us forward together. That is what our country needs.

Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum.