Immigration Pork

Do you think Congress really cares about the budget deficit anymore? Or that the age-old practice of buying lawmakers votes with local projects is really dead?  Just take a look at the Senate’s version of the immigration bill.

Last Thursday, the Congressional Budget Office scored the Senate’s draft immigration bill as reducing the deficit by nearly $200 billion over 10 years. Within 24 hours, the measure’s sponsors agreed to give away 20 percent of that $200 billion—$40 billion in new spending—in immigration pork.

Ostensibly to protect the southern border (a polite euphemism for “keeping Mexicans out of the U.S.”), the package of porcine amendments would add 20,000 more border agents and at least an additional 350 miles of border fence, as well as drones and other assorted technology. The extra agents alone would cost $30 billion. In a key vote last night, 67 senators agreed to debate the amendment (What can I tell you? It is the Senate).

That’s 20,000 more jobs for southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. They might help offset the undocumented workers the law would keep out—workers that employers in that part of the country dearly wish they could hire. Curiously, they’d substitute (higher-paying) government jobs for (low-wage) private-sector jobs—a trade-off that until yesterday was as fashionable on Capitol Hill as spats. 

Of course, the drones and other techno-wizardry will create additional jobs in other states and congressional districts. Nice timing since some of that proto-military business is otherwise shrinking as the war in Afghanistan winds down. In fact, as Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told The New York Times last week, these extra dollars “will almost militarize the border.”

And, of course, this is only the beginning. Even if the Senate approves the bill, a version must somehow pass the House, after which it will likely end up in a conference committee—all additional opportunities to add more spending.

The measure will no doubt satisfy lawmakers who legitimately worry about people who illegally cross the border from Mexico to the U.S. But that phenomenon has already largely come to an end, thanks to a combination of existing boarder security, a stronger Mexican job market, and declining Mexican birth rates. Last year, the Pew Center estimated that net migration from Mexico to the U.S. had fallen to zero.

That report also found that in 2011, U.S. border security apprehended about 286,000 people attempting to cross illegally, down from 1 million in 2005. That’s despite a massive increase in security agents and a new fence. It strongly suggests far few people were trying to cross.   

In that environment, would the extra $40 billion in border security further reduce illegal crossings? CBO says yes, but can’t say by how much. In CBO-speak, “the uncertainty associated with future population flows…is very great.”       

Better question: Is all this extra border security the most cost-effective way to keep more people from illegally crossing? Are there better, less expensive ways? Nobody seems to have asked.

They didn’t need to. As Politco’s Carrie Budoff Brown and Manu Raju wrote last week, “money broke the impasse.”

Immigration pork has purchased the support of a number of GOP senators who, not long ago, were both opposing immigration reform and demanding deep spending cuts to help reduce the deficit. Funny what some federal bucks for the hometown folks can do.