Mass Deportation Is a Lose-Lose Proposition

Ousting undocumented workers can hurt the economy and put American freedoms at risk.

Who will replace them?

Photographer: David NcNew/AFP/Getty Images

In its zeal to deport unauthorized immigrants, the U.S. risks turning itself into a quasi-police state -- all for little or no benefit to the native-born.

First of all, net illegal immigration to the U.S. ended a decade ago:

Here Yesterday, Gone Today

Annual change in unauthorized immigrant population.

Source: Pew Research Center

But there are still about 11 million to 12 million unauthorized immigrants remaining in the U.S. A large and growing majority of Americans want to provide these people with a path to citizenship:

Let Them Stay

Response to question: "What should happen to illegal immigrants working in the U.S."

Source: Fox News

But to a minority of Americans, the continued existence of so many unauthorized immigrants represents a huge problem. Not satisfied with stemming the inflow, they want to take dramatic measures to deport those who already came.

Immigration Reform

The Trump administration is giving the restrictionists what they want. In April, the administration opened a hotline called Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE). The hotline is for Americans to snitch on their neighbors. Although the office was ostensibly set up to “support victims of crimes committed by criminal aliens,” it’s the place to call if you think your neighbor is in the country illegally. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will then pay them a visit. Recent records, released under the Freedom of Information Act, paint a grim but hardly surprising picture of what society looks like when the government asks the residents of a country to betray each other.  

Meanwhile, stories of ICE overreach are multiplying. The agency has arrested people coming out of courtrooms. It snatched a man dropping off his daughter at school, and a teenager about to go to a prom. In Michigan, ICE agents ate a nice breakfast at a restaurant before nabbing three of its workers. Arrests by ICE are up by about 40 percent this year.

What happens to the people ICE spirits away from their lives and their families? Increasingly, they are not deported to their countries of origin, but held in government detention centers. The conditions are prison-like, and there are widespread reports of sexual assaults.

This system may not yet approach the epic scale of the repression in communist East Germany or the Soviet Union, or modern repressive states like North Korea or Iran. But it’s moving uncomfortably in that direction. When people are encouraged to rat out their neighbors, government agents walk around asking you for your papers, and families are disappeared off the street and whisked away to detention centers, it’s impossible to avoid the comparison.

And what is being gained by nurturing this germ of a police state? Are there substantial economic and social benefits to native-born Americans that justify a harsh enforcement regime? Probably not.

This isn’t the first time the U.S. has rounded up and deported large numbers of people. In the early years of the Great Depression, the U.S. kicked out about a half-million Mexican immigrants -- about a third of the Mexican-born population living in the country at the time. Unlike today, many of those deported were U.S. citizens, who were expelled in violation of their Constitutional rights.

Obviously, the goal was to provide relief to non-Mexican-Americans, at a time when unemployment was at record highs. But did it work? A new analysis by economists Jongkwan Lee, Giovanni Peri and Vasil Yasenov finds that it did not. Comparing cities that deported lots of Mexican-born residents with those who deported fewer, Lee et al. find that the former didn’t see their unemployment rates fall. If anything, job prospects for the native-born actually got worse in cities where deportations were more common. 

How could deporting people make local labor markets worse? Jobs are not a fixed commodity that get parceled out to whoever is in the neighborhood; that’s a common fallacy. The people deported to Mexico in the Depression weren’t just workers, they were also consumers -- their demand supported local businesses. When the government stepped in and removed them, local businesses naturally suffered.

That wasn’t the last time the U.S. tried to support native-born workers by keeping out Mexican laborers. In 1965, the U.S. ended a program that allowed Mexican farm workers, called braceros, into the country on a temporary basis. The idea was to raise wages and provide jobs for native-born agricultural laborers.

But a recent study by economists Michael Clemens, Ethan Lewis, and Hannah Postel finds no evidence that the policy worked as designed. Wages didn’t rise in the sectors where workers were excluded, nor did more native-born Americans take the jobs. Many farmers either switched to crops that required less manpower to pick, or invested in more automation. Sometimes they simply grew less, which probably resulted in higher food prices for American consumers.

So the benefit of mass deportation to the native-born is low or even negative. Crops will rot in the field, local businesses in cities across the country will lose customers and landlords will lose tenants. These costs will cancel out whatever benefits native-born Americans see from having low-paid, low-skill jobs suddenly open to them. Taxpayers might save a little money from not paying for unauthorized immigrants’ kids to go to school, but that’s about it. Meanwhile, the U.S. government will become a more repressive, more intrusive entity, eroding the freedoms that Americans have traditionally prided themselves on.

It doesn’t seem worth it. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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