Control and Compassion

The 1994 Crime Bill and Immigration

In a speech delivered in 1993, President Bill Clinton announced a multi-year immigration initiative, marking the starting point of his administration’s plan for large-scale immigration reform. Undergirding the plan was a recognition of the benefits—and challenges—associated with immigration to the United States.

As the administration acknowledged in a presidential report, immigration represents the best about America: “We are a Nation of immigrants that strives to live up to an idea of openness and receptivity. Immigration involves more than welcoming newcomers from faraway places. It involves reuniting our own families, helping our economy, fulfilling our religious and humanitarian values, and standing up to persecution that far too many Americans remember.” Yet the administration also identified persistent challenges, including “a legacy of more than 3.5 million [undocumented] immigrants, uncontrolled movement across the Southwest border, and growing concern about the State and local fiscal impact of [undocumented] immigration.” Against this backdrop, Clinton’s plan sought to strike a difficult balance—one between control and compassion. The Crime Bill, signed into law on September 13, 1994, represented the administration's most significant attempt to strike that balance, authorizing $3 billion over five years to achieve five key initiatives:

  • Strengthen border control
  • Expedite deportation for undocumented individuals and those with criminal convictions
  • Reform the asylum-seeking process
  • Develop a database to track immigrants’ legal status, and
  • Reimburse states for the costs of incarcerating undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes

With its ambitious scope and considerable funding authorizations, the Crime Bill laid the foundation for American immigration enforcement as we know it today.

Control and Compassion

Policy Context

The Crime Bill was predated by the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), a measure signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. The enactment of IRCA marked the first major revision of America’s immigration laws in decades, and its passage followed years of acrimonious debate. IRCA is often described as a measure that coupled the legalization of 2.7 million undocumented persons with a (largely ineffective) regime of employer regulation. Yet the law may be best known for setting the stage for the “thickening of the border” by increasing funding for policing efforts, equipment, and technology, as well as detention centers. The Crime Bill significantly enhanced these border initiatives.

Control and Compassion

Five Key Targets for Reform

The Crime Bill focused on five key immigration-related goals. The first of these was strengthening border control. Funding authorizations of $675 million enabled the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) to continue implementing its strategy of “prevention through deterrence” along the Southwest border. This involved developing an enforcement mix of U.S. Border Patrol agents, equipment, and technology that at the time was state of the art. Technological advances included remote video surveillance systems linked to in-ground sensors located near the border, as well as permanently mounted and mobile infrared night scopes – or “thermal imaging devices” – that detect migrants by their body heat. Second, the administration sought to expedite the deportation of undocumented immigrants as well as documented immigrants who had committed crimes while in the U.S., an initiative supported with funding authorizations of $160 million. Expedited deportation was part of a broader approach to “get tough” on immigration-related crime. Consistent with this, the Crime Bill increased penalties for smuggling and for offenses associated with drug trafficking and terrorism, as well as for passport and visa fraud. A third goal set out by the Crime Bill was asylum reform, which reflected the principle that recognizing the right of individuals fleeing persecution to seek asylum is a fundamental American value. Funding authorizations of $338 million expedited the adjudication of asylum claims by creating new regulations to streamline the process, reducing case backlogs, and doubling the number of staff. The funding also aided the deportation of denied applicants to provide “better service to those who are authorized to enter and improved inspections to detect those who are not.” Fourth, the Crime Bill authorized the administration to develop the Law Enforcement Support Center to help authorities determine the immigration status of individuals who committed crimes. The center provided state and local law enforcement officers with 24-hour access to INS records. Funding authorizations of $18 million enabled the center to expand to accommodate inquiries from more agencies. The fifth goal articulated by the Crime Bill was reimbursing states for their immigration-related incarceration costs. Consistent with the theme of “shared responsibility,” $1.8 billion was authorized to reimburse states for the expense of incarcerating undocumented individuals who had committed crimes. This program, known at the time as the “State Criminal Alien Assistance Program” (SCAAP), actually paid states $4.1 billion from FY1997 through FY2005, a period that went beyond the initial Crime Bill authorization. Half of those funds went to California ($1.7 billion) and New York ($734 million). Beyond these major initiatives, several other Crime Bill provisions were related to immigration. Among the most important was the authorization of $1.5 billion for various programs to reduce violence against women, including immigrant women. Specific to this population was the initiative that granted statutory authority for abused spouses and children to self-petition for permanent residency. Initiatives that expanded many of these strategic goals later appeared in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA), signed into law by President Clinton in 1996. Consistent with the Crime Bill, IIRAIRA sought to strengthen the rule of law by “cracking down on illegal immigration at the border… and in the criminal justice system—without punishing those living in the United States legally.”

Control and Compassion


The Crime Bill, coupled with IIRAIRA, largely invented immigration enforcement as we know it today. Its greatest impacts are seen in four areas: violence against women, deportation, policing the border, and shared federal-state-local responsibility for immigration enforcement.

Protecting Immigrant Women from Abuse

In passing the Crime Bill, Congress sought to take aim at problems that were contributing to domestic violence in the U.S. Title IV (“Violence Against Women”), for example, remedied flaws and oversights created by past responses from the courts and Congress. In terms of immigration, Title lV’s most relevant impact was its amendment of the Marriage Fraud Act’s application for citizenship requirement. Under Section 40701, a non-citizen spouse was permitted to petition the Attorney General directly for permanent status if the marriage was entered into in good faith, and if the woman or her child had been “battered” or subjected to “extreme cruelty” by her spouse. This change was critical because abused women were no longer forced to rely on their husbands or authority figures to obtain residency. In addition, Section 40703 provided for the “suspension of deportation” of abused immigrant women, addressing their most pressing fear. Intimate partner violence against all women declined following passage of the Crime Bill, although the extent to which reductions occurred for immigrant women is unclear and concerns about their vulnerability remain.

Accelerating Deportations

For millions of unauthorized immigrants, the Crime Bill made deportation a constant threat. The legislation made it harder for undocumented immigrants to “get legal,” and expanded eligibility for deportation in three ways. First, it expanded an existing category of laws that increased the likelihood of a person’s removal from the country, and sped up the process by which they were removed. Second, the Crime Bill led to sizable and sustained increases in immigration enforcement personnel, infrastructure, and technology. Finally, the legislation laid the groundwork for operational and policy decisions that increased barriers to legal status for undocumented immigrants. The result of these changes was the removal of a record number of unauthorized immigrants at a furious pace. Deportations rose dramatically, from roughly 70,000 in 1996 to nearly 420,000 in 2012 (see Figure 1), earning the U.S. a reputation as a “deportation nation." While lower today, removals remain high compared to historic levels, and deportation operations are central to the “formidable machinery” of immigration enforcement.

Figure 1. Total Removals, 1996 - 2012

Fortifying the Border

Prior to the 1990s, the U.S.-Mexico border was relatively uncontrolled, and the difficulties undocumented immigrants faced in crossing the border were minimal. Passage of the Crime Bill changed that, as talk of “controlling the border” and “stopping the flood” of immigrants dominated policy debate. In the field, the Border Patrol implemented operations in select areas to prevent and detect illegal entry along the border. These operations sealed common routes traveled by migrants, shifting their attempted crossings to ports of entry where inspection was systematic and altering routes to more remote terrain where agents had a tactical advantage. Crime Bill funding also allowed the government to station thousands of additional agents at the border; allowed for new road construction to give agents more mobility and greater access to the border; aided the installation of high-intensity lights, ten-foot steel fences, and motion-detection sensors; and provided for remote video surveillance cameras and night-vision and thermal imaging devices. Despite the expense, this “militarization of the border” had a limited effect. It became more difficult, but hardly impossible, for immigrants to cross into the U.S. And while border apprehensions declined at the targeted locations, many immigrants simply altered their migration routes from California and Texas—where efforts were concentrated—to Arizona. Beyond the strategy’s limited effectiveness, its unanticipated consequences included a rise in human smuggling, which became a thriving business; greater lengths of stay in the U.S., as immigrants no longer wanted to risk reentry; and more migrant deaths. Overall, the Crime Bill was largely unsuccessful in curbing undocumented immigration, in no small part because of its lopsided emphasis on targeting supply over demand.

The Mixed Legacy of Shared Responsibility

Historically, enforcing immigration laws was left to the federal government, and state and local police were not empowered to arrest and detain violators. The Crime Bill’s emphasis on “shared responsibility” jump-started a decades-long process of devolution of immigration enforcement. Spurred by policies such as the Secure Communities Program, the Criminal Alien Program, and 287g agreements that —in different but complementary ways—provided necessary resources and training, local officials became more proactive in enforcing immigration statutes. While this shift was significant, research reveals that devolution policies have been largely ineffective in enhancing public safety. In fact, some research shows that such policies may do more harm than good as police-community relations break down, residents report fewer crimes and victimizations to authorities, and instances of racial profiling and pre-textual arrests increase. Today some local jurisdictions are rejecting devolution efforts through sanctuary policies, which expressly limit local officials’ involvement in the enforcement of federal immigration law.

Control and Compassion


In 1994 the White House published Accepting the Immigration Challenge, a report that outlined President Clinton’s multi-year plan for comprehensive immigration reform. The Crime Bill, sandwiched between two other immigration reform initiatives, IRCA and IIRAIRA, was the administration’s primary achievement in the plan’s first year. It authorized substantial funding to achieve major initiatives related to border control, deportation, asylum reform, information tracking, and incarceration costs. The Crime Bill set the stage for immigration enforcement as we know it today, and its greatest impacts are seen in four areas: violence against women, deportation, policing the border, and shared responsibility for immigration enforcement. The future of these immigration policies and practices, however, remains unknown. As part of a commitment to “modernize” and “restore humanity and American values to our immigration system,” newly elected President Joe Biden has sent a sweeping reform bill to Congress. It prioritizes “keeping families together, growing the economy, responsibly managing the border with smart investments, addressing the root causes of migration from Central America, and ensuring that the U.S. remains a refuge for those fleeing persecution.” With this new federal agenda, and the continuing challenge of managing asylum-seeking minors at the U.S.-Mexico border, comprehensive immigration reform has been vaulted to the forefront of public discourse once again.

Charis E. Kubrin is a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine. Her research focuses on neighborhood correlates of crime, with a focus on the nexus of immigration and crime across place. Kubrin is a member of the Council on Criminal Justice.

Next chapter coming soon


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