Immigration enforcement is funded at a much higher rate than labor standards enforcement—and the gap is widening

One clear way to understand the priorities of a government is to look at how it spends money. If it’s true as they say that “budgets are moral documents,” then this Congress and administration do not place much value on worker rights or working conditions. A comparative analysis of 2018 federal budget data reveals that detaining, deporting, and prosecuting migrants, and keeping them from entering the country, is the top law enforcement priority of the United States—but protecting workers in the U.S. labor market and ensuring that their workplaces are safe and that they get paid for every cent they earn is barely an afterthought.

In 2013, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) made headlines with a report that highlighted the fact that appropriations for immigration enforcement agencies exceeded funding for the five main U.S. law enforcement agencies combined by 24 percent. A recent report from MPI updated the numbers, showing that after six years of skyrocketing spending, immigration enforcement agencies received $24 billion in 2018, or $4.4 billion more than they did in 2012 (in constant 2018 dollars). This amounts to “34 percent more than the $17.9 billion allocated for all other principal federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined,” which includes the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

With $24 billion in federal spending and climbing, immigration enforcement has undoubtedly become the top law enforcement priority of the U.S. government and the Trump administration. Where do labor standards and worker rights fit in?

My analysis of federal budget data reveals that spending on immigration enforcement in 2018 was an astonishing 11 times greater than spending to enforce labor standards—despite the mandate labor agencies have to protect 146 million workers employed at 10 million workplaces. Labor standards enforcement across the federal government received $2.2 billion in 2012, and that amount has decreased since then. In 2018, the budget for labor standards enforcement was only $2.0 billion, a $200 million decrease in real terms. (See Figure A.)

Congress is currently working on legislation to spend billions more on emergency appropriations for immigration enforcement while the Trump administration is proposing deep cuts to funding for labor agencies. As both of these line items continue to move in the wrong direction, we see an increasingly disparate investment pattern with serious consequences for all working people across the country.

U.S. government funds appropriated for immigration and labor standards enforcement, 2012 and 2018

Immigration enforcement Labor standards enforcement
2012 $19.6  $2.2
2018 $24.0 $2.0
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Note: Values are adjusted to 2018 dollars. 2012 immigration enforcement totals include appropriations for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program (US-VISIT). 2018 immigration enforcement totals include CBP, ICE, and the Office of Biometric and Identity Management (OBIM). Totals for labor standards enforcement include appropriations for all subagencies, administrations, and offices that the U.S. Department of Labor considers for "Worker Protection" in budget documents—which include the Employee Benefits Security Administration, Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, Wage and Hour Division, Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, Office of Labor-Management Standards, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Mine Safety and Health Administration, and the Office of the Solicitor—as well as appropriations for the National Labor Relations Board and the National Mediation Board.

Source: Doris Meissner, Donald Kerwin, Muzaffar Chishti, and Claire Bergeron, Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinery, Migration Policy Institute (January 2013); Doris Meissner and Julia Gelatt, Eight Key U.S. Immigration Policy Issues: State of Play and Unanswered Questions, Migration Policy Institute (May 2019); U.S. Department of Labor, FY 2020 Budget in Brief; Office of Management and Government, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2018; and National Labor Relations Board, Justification of Performance Budget for Committee on Appropriations, Fiscal Year 2020.

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This estimate for labor standards enforcement appropriations uses an expansive definition that includes 2012 and 2018 funds for eight subagencies, administrations, and offices that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) considers for “Worker Protection” in budget documents, as well as appropriations for two non-DOL agencies, the National Labor Relations Board and the National Mediation Board.

In terms of staffing, federal budget data also show that labor enforcement agencies are staffed at only a fraction of the levels required to adequately fulfill their missions. In 2018, Congress gave the immigration enforcement agencies—U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP, which includes the U.S. Border Patrol), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM)—funds to employ 78,800 total personnel, while the 10 labor standards enforcement agencies combined only received enough to employ 10,400.

Furthermore, the agents and investigators at labor agencies who actually police the labor market, who are a subset of the total personnel employed, have seen their workloads reach unrealistic levels because hiring has failed to keep up. As a new report by the Center for Popular Democracy and EPI highlights, the number of workers that each Wage and Hour Division investigator at DOL was responsible for in 1978 was just over 69,000. By 2018, that had more than doubled, to 175,000 workers per investigator on average. It’s a similar story at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA): there were just over 60,000 workers for every OSHA compliance officer in 1978; the number in 2018 had roughly tripled to nearly 180,000.

So why does all this matter? It is getting harder than ever to ensure that workers get a fair shake in the workplace. Budgets for labor standards enforcement agencies are shrinking. Employer tactics like forced arbitration prevent workers from suing in court when their bosses rob them. And the executive branch can also severely limit the work labor agencies can do on behalf of workers through executive actions, regulatory policy, and political appointees—something the Trump administration has specialized in. In the context of vastly underfunded labor agencies, enforcement-only immigration policies with runaway budgets risk enabling retaliation against immigrant workers who stand up for their rights on the job.

All workers face too many risks when they take action to make workplaces safer and fairer. But for 8 million workers—or about 5 percent of the U.S. labor force—those risks include deportation and separation from their families. Another 1 percent of the workforce risks losing a temporary visa status that their employer controls if they speak out. No worker should ever have to make a choice between safety and getting paid or possible deportation when deciding whether to file a claim with a labor agency, but that’s the reality for 6 percent of workers in this grossly imbalanced enforcement context.

ICE and CBP have virtually unlimited funds and an ever-expanding mandate and discretion to arrest, detain, and deport migrants—many of whom are long-term members of our workforce—while labor agencies are perennially underfunded. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the amount of wages stolen every year by employers is estimated to be $50 billion, or that there were more than 10,000 fatal work injuries and 5.7 million work-related injuries and illnesses in 2016 and 2017 combined.

With so little financial backing for federal labor standards enforcement and so few staffers policing the labor market, how can our government ensure that workers are safe and protected, and that employers are held accountable for discrimination, dangerous conditions, or stolen wages? The short answer is, it can’t.