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National priorities

The problem with illegal immigration in this country is a thorny one. The country has spent an enormous amount of time, energy and money grappling with the issue ever since President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, which legalized more than 3 million illegal immigrants and overhauled immigration laws.

Since that time, millions of South and Central Americans have made their way into the United States illegally. The generally accepted estimate suggests there are 12 million undocumented immigrants residing here today. If accurate, that represents almost 4 percent of the total population.

Resources for social, medical and educational services are strained without the support of tax revenues derived from wages paid to undocumented workers. Local economies don't get the usual circulatory effect of the wages, as much of the earned salaries is transferred to the country of origin where it supports family.

And as long as the grass appears greener north of the U.S.-Mexican border, it appears there is little reason to believe people without legitimate visas will stop moving this direction.

On the other hand, businesses appreciate the fact they can hire day laborers and quasi-permanent workers under the table for less money than it would take to convince a U.S. citizen to accept the job. The same businesses generally appreciate the fact immigration control efforts tend to focus on border patrol and tracking down individuals -- rather than targeting the hiring entities. The occasional workplace raid is a cost of doing business and generally harsher on the undocumented worker than the company itself.

But there is little doubt the cost of immigration enforcement is skyrocketing. Since 1986, some $187 billion has been spent for such purposes. In fiscal year 2012 alone, the government spent about $18 billion for programs run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S.-Visit program, and Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol.

By comparison, the federal government spent less than $15 billion for the combined budgets all other federal law enforcement agencies, which include the FBI; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Drug Enforcement Administration, and the U.S. Secret Service.

It begs the question of whether our national priorities are aligned appropriately.

The four apparently lesser agencies merely are responsible for:

* Protecting the U.S. from national and transnational groups trying to harm us (FBI),

* Protecting communities from violent criminals and organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, and acts of terrorism (ATF),

* Enforcing controlled substances and regulations (DEA), and

* Safeguarding the nation's financial infrastructure and payment systems to preserve the integrity of the economy, and to protect national leaders, visiting heads of state and government, designated sites and national special security events.

We apparently can accomplish all those critical missions for $14.4 billion annually. And then turn around and spend $18 billion attempting to round up roofers, housekeepers and those willing to toil in the hot sun picking lettuce.

It's either a case of incredible inefficiency in the immigration enforcement world -- or elected officials give overinflated value to the problem as a hot-button social issue.

We are not minimizing the problem caused by so many undocumented individuals living in America. But we find it hard to justify the dedication of so many valuable resources at the expense of so many other critical functions. Are these truly our greatest enemies?

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net