shutterstock_140132866Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) – who has served in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1987, became the Chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims in 1994.  Mr. Smith’s district includes most of the wealthier sections of San Antonio and Austin, as well as some of the Texas Hill Country.

After the GOP ascension to the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994, Rep. Smith focused on immigration reform legislation in both the 104th and 105th Congresses.   Rep. Smith’s ideas came to fruition in 1996 through the enactment of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA).

IIRAIRA was based on two main premises:

1.  To make life so difficult for undocumented workers that they’d leave, and then face the 3 or 10 year bars, or the worst: be permanently barred from returning;

2.  Label low-level misdemeanors “aggregated felonies”under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and subject those convicted of these minor crimes to mandatory detentions, so they’d be deported expeditiously.

The results of IIRAIRA however have been nothing less than disastrous.  We now have more undocumented migrants who cannot leave or they’d be subject to significant and often times impossible bars to reenter the U.S.  The lives of their U.S. born children and family members are often stuck in stagnation not knowing where they all will end up.  That is if they are lucky enough not to have to pay thousands of dollars of their hard earned money for legal fees they incur trying to keep their families together in one country.

In 1994, U.S. government records showed between 4.6 and 5.4 million undocumented persons living in the U.S.  As of 2012, the Pew Research Center estimates that this number has reached 11.7 million.  In 1994 immigration detention centers had about 6,280 beds.  Today, their Congressionally-mandated capacity is 33,400.

Rep. Lamar Smith, a fiscal conservative, was also wrong on the costs.  This overzealous enforcement is not free.  A March 2010 study by the Center for American Progress “calculates a price tag of $200 billion to deport over 10 million undocumented migrants in a 5 year span which is obviously impractical and would have hugely negative economic effects.  But while that’s a price tag, we actually pay an unnecessarily large bill every year on detention. For Fiscal Year 2014, the White House requested $1.84 billion for DHS Custody Operations – which translates into $5 million each day for detention.  What makes it worse is that so much of these tax dollars go to private prison conglomerates who simultaneously lobby the government for harsher immigration laws.  IIRAIRA has directly contributed to a booming prison-business industry at the expense of U.S. tax payers and the lives of migrant workers.

In any private business, which Rep. Smith praises profusely, such utter failure and mismanagement of company funds would result in an immediate termination of the responsible employee.  Not so in U.S. Congress.  While no longer having immediate control over immigration issues any longer, in the 113th Congress, Rep. Lamar Smith still chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology which has jurisdiction over all energy research, development, and projects.

Written by Ally Bolour, Member, AILA Media Advocacy Committee