WASHINGTON —The United States spends more on immigration enforcement than on all other major federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined, and it has increased that spending dramatically over the past quarter-century, according to a report released Monday by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Washington.
The report found that in 2012 the U.S. government spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement. That is 24 percent more than it spent collectively for the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Secret Service, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The spending went to the government's two main immigration enforcement agencies — U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — and to US-VISIT, a fingerprinting and photograph initiative to log international travelers at ports of entry.
The report also found that more people, nearly 430,000, are detained each year for immigration-related violations than are serving sentences in federal prisons for all federal crimes. And it found that deportations have soared from 30,000 in 1990 to nearly 400,000 in 2011. More than 4.4 million people have been deported since 1990, the report's authors said.
"Today, immigration enforcement can be seen as the federal government's highest criminal law enforcement priority," said Doris Meissner, a co-author of the report.
The numbers have starkly increased since 1986, when the Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed, marking the first time that hiring illegal workers became a crime and ushering in a new era of immigration enforcement.
Spending on immigration enforcement was then only one-quarter of overall federal law enforcement, according to the report. Since then, the United States has spent $187 billion on immigration enforcement, the report said.
The findings are likely to feed the debate over comprehensive immigration reform. To some, they signal a need to broaden the government's approach.
Jon Feere of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports stricter limits on immigration, said that increased spending and detentions do not mean that the government has been inefficient in fighting illegal immigration. "One of the reasons there are more detentions is that we have more illegal immigration" since 1990, he said.