Policy Brief - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Toward a Better Immigration System

  • Doris Meissner
  • Ruth Ellen Wasem
| Apr. 11, 2022

Fixing Immigration Governance at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security

This paper is a condensed version of our longer report, Toward a Better Immigration System: Fixing Immigration Governance at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which was published by the Migration Policy Institute in October 2021. Since the publication of our original report, certain changes have occurred in areas we address, in particular with respect to DHS budgeting and funding. We have not updated our original analysis with these subsequent changes, which, while meaningful, do not alter the underlying thrust of our argument. We are actively monitoring the work of the Administration and Congress, and, as appropriate, we will address the changes that are being made in future work. We express our gratitude for Brianne Berry’s assistance in preparing this version of our paper.

Executive Summary

Whether it is record-breaking numbers of unaccompanied child and family migrants crossing the southwest border or unprecedented backlogs in immigration and naturalization petitions, immigration governance is buckling from breakdowns in performance across key Department of Homeland Security (DHS) immigration components and partner agencies. Rethinking immigration governance at DHS and across the executive branch is essential. Although many of the issues plaguing the immigration system are due to Congress’s failure to update immigration laws to reflect national needs, the management of DHS’ immigration components is the responsibility of the executive branch.

DHS’ current chain of command and coordination capabilities are not strong enough to counteract the centrifugal forces of better-resourced, singular operations (e.g. border security and immigration detention). The DHS components and the agencies they collaborate with in other federal departments lack the assuredness and agility to effectively recalibrate and adjust to new circumstances. The challenge for the DHS immigration components is to fuse broader immigration policy and performance outcomes with enduring border and national security imperatives.

This paper examines questions of structure—as compared with leadership and policy—and proposes changes that would enable more effective and humane implementation of the nation’s immigration laws. It identifies four key organizational areas of concern—mission, institutional structures, funding priorities, and institutional culture—essential to the vitality and governance of the U.S. immigration system. We argue that immigration is a system that spans both intra-DHS and interagency organizational entities and processes, and that it must operate as a system to successfully carry out its duties. Managing immigration as a system calls for coordinated operational capabilities, decision-making structures, and resource allocations. The paper provides recommendations that can be accomplished within the current authority of the secretary of homeland security and the executive branch. In addition, it closes with select proposals for a longer-term change agenda that would require legislation.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Meissner, Doris and Ruth Ellen Wasem. “Toward a Better Immigration System.” Policy Brief, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, April 11, 2022.

The Authors