Enforcing Immigration Law at the State and Local Levels

A Public Policy Dilemma

by Jessica Saunders, Nelson Lim, Don Prosnitz


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Almost 12 million out-of-status aliens currently reside in the United States, and it is estimated that it will take 15 years and more than $5 billion for the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement to apprehend just the current backlog of absconders. One proposed solution to this enforcement problem is for federal agencies to partner with state and local law-enforcement agencies to apprehend and deport fugitive aliens. Currently, the federal government does not require state and local agencies to carry out specific immigration enforcement actions; however, comprehensive immigration reform may address this issue in the near future. Before such legislation is drafted and considered, it is important to understand all the potential impacts of a policy incorporating immigration enforcement by nonfederal entities. As there is very limited evidence about the effects of involving state and local law enforcement in immigration enforcement duties, the authors seek to clarify the needs and concerns of key stakeholders by describing variations in enforcement approaches and making their pros and cons more explicit. They also suggest areas for research to add empirical evidence to the largely anecdotal accounts that now characterize discussions of the involvement of state and local law enforcement in immigration enforcement efforts.

This research was conducted under the auspices of the Center on Quality Policing (CQP), part of the Safety and Justice Program within RAND Infrastructure, Safety, and Environment (ISE).

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