The Economics of Immigration Enforcement

Immigration Sign

Economics is all about incentives. We understand that if you offer more money for a particular job, there will be more people willing to do that job. I could provide an endless list of similar examples, but everyone understands this. But when it comes to other areas of public policy, people are much less clear. We see this all the time in the illegal drug trade where increased penalties and enforcement have led to a larger supply of cheaper and purer drugs. But that’s very complicated. The way that incentives affect immigration policing is much simpler.

Incentives of Immigration Enforcement

Let’s think about what’s going on right now with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). We’ve heard lots about how ICE agents were very unhappy with President Obama and how much they supported Donald Trump. And now that he’s president, they are even more happy. Trump hasn’t given ICE any more money, but he’s changed their priorities. Or rather, he’s more or less letting them do whatever they want. And what is the incentive there? Well, it isn’t complicated.

For the agents, he’s made their lives easy. Now they can just wait outside the court room for when an undocumented immigrant leaves having dealt with a traffic ticket or some other minor offense. It’s not just easy because they don’t have to go looking. It’s also easy because they don’t have to worry that the person they are arresting is violent. Just imagine if 90 percent of the work you have to do in your job was lifted. You’d be very happy.

For the managers at ICE, this is fantastic. Now they can catch more people and get credit for doing a great job. They’ll hear, “Wow! You doubled the number of people you deported!” And they’ll think to themselves, “It was easy! I used to have go after violent criminals, but now I capture housewives and grandfathers.” There will be nowhere on the reports they file to indicate what percentage of the people they captured were “bad hombres.” A 55 year-old father of four with no criminal history is as good as a gang leader captured after shooting the graveyard clerk at the local 7-11.

Unintended Immigration Consequences

And that’s the thing: Trump promised us that he would get rid of the “bad” people, but he’s set up a system that does just the opposite. Why should ICE go after people who might be violent, when they get just as much credit for getting people who have a long history of abiding by the law? And the answer is that there is no reason. So now undocumented immigrants who have a history of violence are actually safer than the kind of undocumented immigrants that Trump and his supporters claim to not be worried about.

Remember: when Trump first started his campaign, he talked about immigrants as being bad for the economy. But that didn’t play the way that “violent Mexicans” did. And so that was his main talking point. But now, when Trump supporters see people they know deported, they usually react the same way, “That’s not the kind of person I thought he would deport!” Yeah, Trump supporters all had their own secret decoder rings that told them what Trump meant when he said things they disagreed with. It turns out that the only thing you needed to decode was anything he said about helping the middle class.


When Obama was president, he talked a lot about priorities when it came to immigration. This was treated by conservatives as a kind of dodge. But the truth is that ICE (and every other part of the government) has limited resources. So clearly, what it needs to do is prioritize. Obama’s priorities were what most people would think were reasonable. Trump’s “get them all” priorities is really just “let the agents do what they want” priorities. And that is the same as “let the agents do what is easiest.” And that means that we are going to deport the people that most Americans least want to see deported.

Of course, most people won’t care unless ICE’s new policies directly affect them. Fewer resources will go toward removing violent people. And that means that more people will be harmed, even as ICE’s deportations go up. But it will be impossible to show that this policy has actually harmed us. Indeed, if an undocumented immigrant kills someone, it will be used by President Trump as an excuse for deporting more undocumented grandmothers who have never so much as jaywalked in the 30 years they’ve lived here.

This entry was posted in Politics by Frank Moraes. Bookmark the permalink.

About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.