Senior fellow, University of Ottawa
Donald Trump’s promise to deport all illegal immigrants is less alarming than the failure of leading Republicans to say this is simply wrong, immoral and stupid. But given that Trump is now the Republican “presumptive” candidate, and that he says deportation is really on the table, we should look at the proposal in a more operational perspective. The management tasks are enormous, many questions are opened and the view beyond is frightening.
First question, who? How many illegal immigrants are there in the U.S.? Some conservatives say the number is as large as 30 million but most experts agree on about 11 million. To give some sense of scale, the total number of U.S. armed forces personnel who served in World War II was about 16 million. In June 2013, more than 2.7 million people were serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. About 1.6 million people live in Manhattan – one seventh of the current number of illegal immigrants. The total population of New York City is about 8.5 million, Los Angeles about 4 million. 11 million is a lot of people.
Actually, we speak of 11 million, but we don’t know who they are. Illegal immigrants don’t wear signs. So someone will have to identify them. They will have to be winnowed out from the U.S. citizens who don’t have birth certificates or other official documents proving their citizenship. The Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law says that about 7 percent of Americans (13 million) lack ready access to citizenship documents. Who is to be charged with enumerating the final list of people to be deported? How will this listing be done and how long will take? Will this process be constrained by any rules of privacy? The U.S. is, Trump insists, a country of laws, so presumably there will be some legal redress built into the enumeration process. Will our (local? state? federal?) court systems be responsible for determining who’s who? Some new specially designed court system?
Surely – this is a country of laws – the deportation
would operate under legal authority. Would this mean vast new powers for the
federal government? More centralization in Washington and an enormous expansion
of the Washington’s police power? Would this be undertaken under individual
How many people would be rounded up to make sure all 11 million illegals are caught and deported?
Immigration experts say that some 40 percent of the 11 million undocumented workers in the country aren’t low-wage workers who sneaked over the southern border illegally, but rather foreigners who arrived legally and simply never left. Will they be deported as well?
About 1,120,000 of the illegals are under 18. Will special arrangements be made for them?
What about dependents of the illegal immigrants who are U.S. citizens? The Pew Foundation found that about 7 percent of K-12 students in the U.S. (that is, 7 percent of 50 million = 3,500,00 young people) had at least one unauthorized immigrant parent in 2012. Among these students, about eight in 10 were born in the U.S. That makes 2,765,000 dependents of illegal immigrants who are legal U.S. citizens. What happens to them? Who will be charged with the responsibility for looking after these bona fide young citizens?
Where will the deportees go? Trump talks as if all illegal immigrants were Mexicans. In fact, Mexicans make up about half of all unauthorized immigrants (52 percent), though their numbers have been declining in recent years. There were 5.9 million Mexican unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. in 2012, down from 6.4 million in 2009, according to Pew Research Center estimates. Over the same period, the number of unauthorized immigrants from Asia, the Caribbean, Central America and some other areas grew slightly. Some of these people are fleeing wars and violence. Are all to be sent back to their starting points, no matter where, what? Or just dump everyone in Mexico and let the Mexicans figure it out?
Who would do the work? The task would certainly overwhelm existing law enforcement. Trump speaks of “a deportation force” which would act “humanely.” But who are they (off duty police? military? A new federal force)? How many would be required? Who would train the force – and under what legal mandate would they act?
Timing would be important. People aren’t just going to sit and wait to be picked up. Some will run or hide. So the deportation process would have to proceed quickly – to avoid creating time for runners to make plans. (Surely a market for forged documents will thrive.)
How would it work? Mid-night sweeps of suspected illegals? Then placed in some sort of detention until their identities can be confirmed? What about those who run? Will the humane deportation force be authorized to hunt them down, dig them out? (Will it be a crime to run or resist? Maybe a jail sentence here rather than deportation?).
Unless the plan is to take suspected illegal immigrants immediately to a point of departure – and assuming IDs will have to be confirmed – some sort of internment camps will have to be created. How many people would be interned, waiting to be cleared or deported? Who would be responsible for running these camps?
Moving people first to internment camps and then to points of departure would be a logistical nightmare. Assuming you don’t want to have (thousands, millions?) of people piled up in internment camps, you would want to move them quickly to departure points. How? How many trains or buses would be required? Just for a sense of scale, Amtrak carries 31 million passengers a year; Greyhound about 18 million.
What about the disposition of property? Not all illegal immigrants are penniless. Some have good jobs, families, homes, businesses. Simple confiscation? By whom? A process that permits them to cash out? How does the government of laws deal with this? (Recall that the Japanese sent to internment camps in 1942 were largely stripped of their possessions.)
And, key question, who pays? Not even asking the obvious questions about the financial impact on communities and families, finding, processing and deporting 11 million people would be one very expensive operation. True, Trump could say it has only to be done once. And Ted Cruz would argue that, if done, more jobs would be available to Americans, and fewer hand-outs given to the undeserving. But those are at best tenuous arguments, and, even if true (which is doubtful), would work out over the longer term. Deportation would be very costly, right now.
The idea of deporting 11 million people is morally and politically a disaster. Moreover, it is clear that the practical implications of trying to do this would be a fundamental assault on our democracy and democratic values. It is shocking that a presidential candidate even dares to tout it as desirable.
But the real threat is that even in “civilized” nations, there are people who are willing – eager – to take on these terrible management jobs. It’s all too easy to see how this call for deporting illegal immigrants could lead to awful consequences. Macbeth’s horror that “Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return to plague the inventor” could ring all too true even in this humane nation.