DHS Must Fix Its Governance to Manage Immigration as a System and Better Coordinate Across Partner Agencies
WASHINGTON — Almost two decades since the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created by Congress to protect the homeland in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, immigration — especially the control and management of U.S. borders — constitutes one of the department’s broadest mandates. Yet immigration governance is buckling from breakdowns in performance across key DHS immigration components and partner agencies elsewhere in the federal government, strained by high numbers of U.S.-Mexico border encounters and unprecedented case backlogs. And, as the arrivals of unaccompanied children and families and, more recently, Afghan evacuees demonstrate, the character of today’s migration implicates the involvement of agencies beyond DHS, including the Departments of State, Justice, Defense and Health and Human Services.
While funding for DHS’ three immigration components — U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) — has surged dramatically, the chain of command and coordination capabilities within DHS have not been strong enough to counteract the centrifugal forces of these better-resourced singular operations (border security and immigration detention, in particular, rather than legal immigration functions).
So that immigration operations can work more effectively and adapt to address evolving challenges, immigration must be managed as a system within DHS, across partner agencies and by the White House, Migration Policy Institute (MPI) Senior Fellow Doris Meissner and Ruth Ellen Wasem of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas argue in a new report.
The report, Toward a Better Immigration System: Fixing Immigration Governance at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, draws from extensive research and interviews with more than 50 people, including former senior DHS career and non-career staff. It also benefits from the deep knowledge of Meissner, who led federal immigration operations as commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) during the 1990s, and Wasem, who analyzed immigration functions during her tenure at the Congressional Research Service.
“Unless these functions — and others like them — work together as a system, border management and control in today’s reality cannot succeed. Thus, managing immigration as a system calls for coordinated operational capabilities, decision-making structures and resource allocations,” Meissner and Wasem write. “These become especially critical in responding to sudden changes in migration trends or unforeseen events, such as the pandemic.”
The weaknesses in managing immigration as a system are perhaps best illustrated at the U.S.-Mexico border, where border management and control carried out by CBP necessarily relies on asylum screenings (conducted by USCIS), migrant custody and supervision (ICE), shelter and sponsor placements for unaccompanied minors (Department of Health and Human Services), immigration court proceedings (Justice Department) and cooperation with Mexico and neighboring countries to reduce the drivers of migration in immigrants’ origin countries (State Department). Yet, effective intra- and inter-agency coordination, planning and consensus-building among these actors has largely been ad hoc and inconsistent, the report finds.
Funding for CBP, ICE and USCIS made up 34 percent of the DHS budget and 44 percent of the department’s personnel in fiscal year (FY) 2020. And annual appropriations for immigration enforcement topped $25 billion in FY 2020 — 28 percent more than the combined budgets for the federal government’s principal criminal law enforcement agencies (the Federal Bureau of Investigation; Drug Enforcement Administration; Secret Service; Marshals Service; and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives). Collectively, since the creation of DHS, the United States has spent more than $315 billion on federal immigration enforcement.
Moreover, the DHS immigration components are heavily defined by their national security dimensions. Yet they are tasked with missions that encompass a wide array of national interests that include meeting labor market needs, travel facilitation and mobility of goods, legal immigration determinations and global leadership in refugee protection, foreign student education, cultural exchange and technological innovation.
There is much that DHS and the executive branch can do to improve immigration governance, even in the absence of Congress making much-needed updates to immigration law that reflect such national needs, Meissner and Wasem say.
They focus on four key organizational areas where the executive branch should act to broaden and better balance the missions of the immigration components, institutionalize DHS-wide policy development and management changes, coordinate funding priorities and foster reforms in the institutional culture. Key recommendations include:
- DHS must strengthen and institutionalize its intra-agency policy development, resource allocation, policy decision-making and crisis management processes and coordination among CBP, ICE and USCIS. The secretary of homeland security should vest broad cross-cutting authority with the undersecretary for strategy, policy and plans and the assistant secretary for border security and immigration, allowing them to oversee and coordinate immigration component strategic plans, integrated budgets and immigration policy directives that implicate intra- and inter-agency capabilities and responsibilities.
- DHS must overcome stovepiping and gaps in coordination among its immigration components to serve as a catalyst for resolving problems of fragmentation across partner Cabinet agencies, especially the Departments of Justice, State and Health and Human Services, as well as others whose capabilities are required to carry out critical functions, such as refugee admissions and effective border control. Led by the undersecretary for management, in consultation with the undersecretary for policy and the three immigration component heads, DHS should establish a standing process for coordinated budget development and planning across the DHS immigration components and Cabinet agencies. The aim should be rightsizing the budgets of the organizational entities that play key roles in administering the nation’s immigration policies. This should include increased funding for the Office of the Secretary and DHS headquarters functions to enable them to serve as the government’s lead agency for managing the immigration system.
- The executive branch should establish an inter-agency standing deputies committee led by the National Security Council and/or Domestic Policy Council to coordinate cross-departmental policy development and implementation of immigration priorities. Although DHS is the lead agency for immigration functions, strengthened support and leadership at the White House level across departments is needed.
You can read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/fixing-immigration-governance-dhs.
It is part of a multiyear Migration Policy Institute (MPI) project, Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy. At a time when U.S. immigration realities are changing rapidly, this initiative is generating a big-picture, evidence-driven vision of the role immigration can and should play in America’s future. To learn more about the project and read the other studies generated by the initiative, see bit.ly/RethinkingImmigration.
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