Huge disparity in funding for immigration enforcement vs. labor standards

In a new, well-documented report, Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinery, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) calculated that the government’s price tag for immigration enforcement in 2012 was $18 billion. The report made headlines by highlighting the fact that this figure amounts to 24 percent more than it costs to fund the five main U.S. law enforcement agencies combined. But MPI offered another important juxtaposition in the report that has failed to receive much attention: the abysmally low level of funds the government commits to enforcing labor standards and protecting the rights of workers in the United States.

MPI reviewed the budgets of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), concluding that in 2010, the “combined budgets for [the] three main federal labor standards regulatory agencies was $1.1 billion … compared to the $17.2 billion budgets for DHS’s two immigration enforcement agencies.” Analyzing the most recent federal budget data available, EPI has found that even when including additional federal agencies whose primary purpose is to enforce labor standards (the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), and the National Mediation Board (NMB)), in 2012, the total amount Congress appropriated to enforce labor laws and regulations amounted to only $1.6 billion—about 9 percent of what was spent enforcing immigration laws last year.

The labor enforcement agencies are staffed at only a fraction of the levels required to adequately fulfill their missions. The two principal immigration enforcement agencies—Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs Border Protection (CBP)—together employ over 80,000, while the WHD, OSHA, OFCCP, NMB, MSHA, and NLRB combined employ fewer than 9,000. The total number of federal inspectors and investigators at WHD, OSHA, MSHA, and NLRB is only 3,600—less than one-fifth the total of Border Patrol agents within CBP. The Wage and Hour Division in particular has a herculean task: With only about 1,100 inspectors, they are responsible for protecting “over 135,000,000 workers in more than 7,300,000 establishments throughout the United States and its territories.”

It is no surprise that workers continue to suffer on a wide scale from employer abuses such as wage theft and employer neglect and indifference for their health and safety. The numbers are alarming: An average of 23,000 on-the-job injuries occur every day across the United States, and there were 9,300 fatal work injuries in 2010 and 2011 combined. One major study found that 26 percent of low-wage workers are paid less than the legally required minimum wage, and 76 percent are not paid the legally required overtime wage rate. Most of these wage violations and safety tragedies occur with impunity. It is time for the Obama administration and Congress to rethink their priorities and consider a substantial increase in funding for the agencies whose mission it is to keep workers safe and healthy and ensure they are paid fairly for every hour they work.