On immigration enforcement and immigrant assimilation

For the past two decades, interior immigration enforcement has been rising at an unprecedented rate. State and local governments have assumed more and more responsibility for immigration enforcement. They’ve partnered with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), enacted policies targeted at identifying and apprehending undocumented immigrants as well as deterring prospective migrants from coming. The unparalleled rise in enforcement has made it more difficult for immigrants to assimilate into their new communities, including:

  • Creating employment barriers and increasing poverty,
  • Diminishing immigrant participation in essential services,
  • Breaking up families,
  • Inflicting psychological tolls on children (most of them citizens), and
  • Altering naturalization rates.

How can this be good for the integration and assimilation of immigrants?  Obviously, it is not. Policymakers would do well to evaluate the failure of increased indiscriminate immigration enforcement. Many existing enforcement programs should be replaced with a more targeted enforcement approach and complemented with inclusive policies that encourage integration and assimilation.

In March 2021, the House passed a bill aimed at improving migrant well-being in the United States: The American Dream and Promise Act (H.R. 6). It would provide a path to citizenship for many of the nation’s undocumented immigrants that prove to be of good moral character. By granting undocumented immigrants an opportunity to regularize their status, the bill constitutes a positive step toward fixing our broken immigration system. Rather than continuing to increase enforcement efforts, policymakers should pursue policies like these that bring immigrants out of the shadows and into the American fold.

How immigration enforcement has increased

The past twenty years have witnessed an unprecedented increase of immigration enforcement in the interior of the United States through various initiatives:

  1. Local and state law enforcement agencies increased cooperation with ICE through the so-called 287(g) agreements and via Secure Communities.
  2. Some states pursued omnibus immigration laws aimed at curtailing undocumented immigrants’ opportunities and making their lives difficult, encouraging self-deportation.
  3. Many states enacted employment verification (E-Verify) mandates with the goal of preventing unauthorized immigrants from working.

Local and State Law Enforcement Partnerships with ICE

The seed for today’s enforcement-first approach to immigration enforcement was planted by the federal government in the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). This act added Section 287(g) to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which enabled ICE to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies. These agreements deputized state and local law enforcement, allowing them to act as immigration enforcement officers with the intent to identify and remove unauthorized immigrants.

When they were first introduced, there were three types of 287(g) agreements: jail, task force, and hybrid models—all of which significantly contributed to the detention of numerous immigrants. In 2002, Florida became the first state to adopt a 287(g) agreement. The use of 287(g) quickly expanded until 2008, when complaints about racial profiling (especially under the task force modality), along with the high costs involved in their implementation, led the Obama administration to slow them down in favor of a more cost-effective enforcement initiative, namely, Secure Communities.   

That said, 287(g) agreements never completely died out. In fact, this initiative was revived under the Trump administration. In 2019, a new classification of 287(g), the warrant service officer modality, was introduced. This modality quickly expanded through additional law enforcement agencies and states, especially Florida.

State Omnibus Immigration Laws

In addition to the 287(g) agreements between ICE and local/state law enforcement, a few states adopted omnibus immigration laws starting in 2010. Like the 287(g), these laws included a variety of measures aimed at identifying and detaining unauthorized immigrants. They also restricted immigrants’ access to basic services and, overall, were aimed at making life increasingly difficult for unauthorized immigrants by restricting their access to employment and public services.

The first state to pass this type of legislation was Arizona in 2010 with the infamous SB1070. Other states soon followed with bills that were even more restrictive. For instance, Alabama’s HB56 in 2011 requested that school officials record whether their students were undocumented. This part of the law constituted a major step in immigration enforcement, as most enforcement policies had previously protected certain spaces, such as schools and hospitals.

Even though many of the measures regulated in omnibus immigration laws were put on hold due to questionable constitutionality, their introduction still had a significant impact on immigrant populations.  For example, in the case of Alabama, many Hispanic parents pulled their children out of school following the request to record students’ legal status, fearing immigration officials.

State Employment Verification Mandates

Starting in 2006, numerous states also adopted employment verification mandates that required the use of E-Verify by employers. E-Verify is a free, internet-based system. It allows employers to check the employment eligibility of new hires by comparing the information from an employee’s Employment Eligibility Verification form (I-9) with records from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration.

The first state to adopt an E-Verify mandate was Colorado, which required employers to verify the work status of all state contractors. Over time these mandates evolved to request employment verification of both public and private sector employees. This was the case with Arizona in 2007, when the state adopted the Legal Arizona Worker Act (LAWA). As of 2021, more than 20 states have some kind of employment verification mandate in place.

Surveying the fallout from increasing immigration enforcement

The intensification of interior immigration enforcement has come at a cost to migrants and their communities. In addition to failing to fulfill their public safety goals, these measures have inhibited the assimilation and integration of immigrants, driving them and their U.S. citizen children into the shadows. Policymakers should pay close attention to the many ways in which wholesale immigration enforcement has harmed immigrant families.

Enforcement has contributed to poverty among immigrant families

Employment and safety net restrictions, as well as fear of apprehension, have worsened the economic and social environment for unauthorized immigrants as well as mixed-status households. Enforcement-first policies have driven immigrants further into the shadows of their communities rather than effectively deterring them from working without authorization.

Researchers Sarah Bohn, Magnus Lofstrom, and Steven Raphael document how Arizona’s 2007 LAWA lowered the percentage of unauthorized immigrants in the state. It seems unlikely that immigrants were returning to their countries of origin, however. In related work, Cynthia Bansak and I showed how the adoption of employment verification mandates led to the relocation of unauthorized immigrants to states without similar legislation, possibly contributing to their employment in the informal or underground economy.

Immigrants also switch the sectors and employment types in response to enforcement. In that vein, my joint work with Chunbei Wang and Magnus Lofstrom shows that low-skilled Mexican non-citizens (likely to be among the undocumented) have had higher rates of self-employment in response to intensified immigration enforcement. In other words, self-employment may have been a way to avoid identification and protect their families from enforcement. Overall, however, intensified enforcement has lowered worker engagement.

These barriers to employment contribute to difficult economic circumstances for many families even when they include legal citizens. In that regard, Esther Arenas-Arroyo, Almudena Sevilla, and I have shown that intensified interior immigration enforcement leads to increased poverty exposure, which negatively impacts many U.S. citizen children. Even when employment barriers are not responsible for deportations, they create financial stress on immigrant families through increased food and housing insecurity.

Heavy enforcement diminishes immigrants’ participation in essential services

Increased immigration enforcement has also reduced the participation of many immigrant families in the social safety net and essential services. U.S.-born children with undocumented parents have not been sheltered from the deleterious impacts of intensified immigration enforcement. Focusing on the 287(g) program, Tara Watson has shown that increased interior immigration enforcement has a chilling impact on Medicaid participation of U.S. citizen children with non-citizen parents. This diminished participation could have long-term impacts on the well-being of these populations.

ICE’s interventions also reduced birth weights of Hispanic babies, a common measure of infant health. Some of the drop in birth weight may be due to immigrants not seeking healthcare or getting proper assistance. Research shows that after the intensification of immigration enforcement happened, Hispanics were less likely to receive a regular, annual check-up, for example.

Prior studies have also documented that deportation fears and economic hardships are associated with difficulties such as poor concentration in school, inability to get along with classmates and teachers, school absences, and a lack of parental engagement with their children’s schooling. Such behaviors translate into worse schooling and educational outcomes for the involved children. Mary Lopez and I found that expanded immigration enforcement increases the likelihood of young children (ages 6–13) repeating a grade and older children (ages 14–17) dropping out of school. Findings like these are common, and they jeopardize immigrant assimilation across generations.

Immigration enforcement also takes a psychological toll on the children of immigrants

Intensified enforcement has had long-term psychological impacts on children left behind after deportations —three-fourths of which are U.S. citizens.

Through millions of deportations, family separations became frequently the norm, resulting in increased foster care arrangements and a huge psychological toll. Between 2005 and 2015, immigration enforcement raised the likelihood of children living without their parents by 19 percent. Undocumented mothers were 20 percent more likely to say that their spouses were not living with them. Children raised in a household with two parents have better economic outcomes and fewer behavioral issues. So these separations are likely reducing the long-term success of Hispanic children in the United States.

Intensified enforcement may be deterring integration by altering naturalization rates

Immigration enforcement appears to have also altered naturalization rates—often considered the cornerstone of immigrant assimilation. Naturalization is the formal process for becoming a citizen. In joint work with Mary Lopez, I show how intensified interior immigration enforcement over the 2008-2018 decade increased migrants’ propensity to naturalize.

This response might, at first glance, be taken as a positive signal of immigrant assimilation. However, the surge in naturalization was concentrated among legal permanent residents residing in non-mixed status households, suggesting that those directly impacted by immigration enforcement—immigrants residing in mixed-status households—are not the ones naturalizing. Why? Perhaps, legal permanent residents in mixed-status households fear having family members identified through the information provided in the naturalization forms.

The increased naturalization rate also suggests immigrants are becoming U.S. citizens out of fear or uncertainty about their ability to secure citizenship in a changing immigration policy environment—one that is increasingly hostile towards immigrants.

The fact that immigration enforcement only boosts the naturalization rate of migrants in non-mixed status households underscores the fact that any other legal migrants in mixed-status households fail to do so, despite being eligible. Intensified interior immigration enforcement has also led to diminished voter registration among eligible citizens living in mixed-status households. Both of these findings suggest that immigrants are retreating to the shadows rather than integrating with U.S. communities and culture.

How to manage immigrant integration

Twenty years of increasing interior immigration enforcement in the United States has created an environment that is not immigrant-friendly. Enforcement measures are backfiring on our goals to integrate newcomers. Immigration enforcement interferes with immigrant assimilation, limiting the contributions that those immigrants can make. 

The United States is a nation of immigrants and is recognized as such in the global community. The plight of our immigrants is monitored internationally. This attention warrants greater consideration as to how immigration enforcement interferes with immigrant assimilation and our country’s ability to garner the most positive outcomes from and for our newcomers.

Of course, immigration enforcement directed at serious criminals is uncontroversial. Yet policymakers should take seriously both the fiscal costs and the way that heavy-handed immigration enforcement frustrates integration. Empirical evidence suggests that targeted policies might be better suited in addressing public safety threats against stereotyped “bad hombres.” In addition, focusing enforcement on real threats encourages immigrants to come forward about crime in comparison to policies that make all immigrants the target of immigration enforcement efforts. This not only promotes public safety, as in the case of domestic violence. It encourages integration and assimilation.

Inclusive policies can roll back the harms from recent United States history of uncompromising enforcement policy. Research by Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny has shown that similar pathways created during President Ronald Reagan’s administration did not increase the rate of illegal immigration. Greater inclusion of immigrants contributed to reduced crime rates. There is evidence from existing inclusive policies that limited protections benefit mental health.

The research is clear: aggressive enforcement policies are preventing immigrants from assimilating and becoming contributing members of society. Policymakers at every level of government can do better.

Several opportunities for improvement are underway. Federal policymakers are presently debating several proposals, such as the American Dream and Promise Act (H.R. 6), which provides pathways to citizenship or at least the opportunity to work legally in the country. Local and state leaders are reconsidering 287(g) agreements and implementing sanctuary policies that empower victims to come forward.

Policy efforts like these constitute long-awaited positive steps toward repairing the damage done in the last twenty years.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.