Bad MathThe Economics of Deportation Don’t Add Up

This article appears in our 2017 Spring issue, Family Values. Subscribe today!

Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump promised to round up and deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States.

The issue of immigration is nonpartisan: President Obama has been called “deporter-in-chief,” as his administration expelled more immigrants than any other administration in U.S. history. Trump is coming into a sophisticated deportation system employing more than 20,000 border agents alongside drones and a militarized border wall. It’s a hand-me-down that stands to wreak havoc on vulnerable migrant communities.

As it stands, the deportation forces operate with impunity, knowingly sending migrants to painful deaths. In December 2016, The Guardian released an exposé on U.S. Border Patrol’s use of the desert as a weapon. No More Deaths, an immigrant advocacy group, accused deportation officials of herding undocumented migrants toward barren landscapes and disposing of water left for migrants by humanitarian groups. The advocacy group has long documented instances of egregious misconduct, from denying water to detainees to physical and psychological abuse. Migrants from Central America face greater risks still: After walking barefoot thousands of miles from Guatemala or beyond, they climb their exhausted bodies aboard La Bestia (“The Beast”), a rickety freight train bearing cargo of cement, corn, and other products for export. It’s also known as “The Death Train.” That name is no accident: Migrants are not welcome aboard the train, so they cling on to the roof or squeeze between boxcars, and not all survive the journey. Some are flung off the train as it jerks and skids. If they’re lucky, they’ll die outright. The alternative is mutilation and a slow, solitary demise along the train tracks. Others are kidnapped—cartel soldiers have been known to board the train and force migrants to act as drug mules if they’re unable to pay steep ransoms. Fear of deportation keeps migrants from turning to authorities for help, leaving them subject to rape, extortion, and intimidation.

Why would anyone risk such a perilous journey? The answer lies in a long, sordid history of U.S. intervention in Latin America.

In 1954, the CIA overthrew Jacobo Árbenz, the democratically elected president of Guatemala. Árbenz ran on a populist platform and planned to pursue agrarian reform in the way of land grants for peasants who had been stripped of their communal farmlands by previous administrations. These reforms threatened the United Fruit Company, an American corporation that controlled 42 percent of Guatemala’s land and had close ties to the Eisenhower administration. Due to intense UFC lobbying and the broader Red Scare atmosphere, the United States took action: The CIA armed and trained guerrillas and aided in the bombing of Guatemala City. Faced with the threat of a U.S. military campaign, Árbenz stepped down. In his wake, Guatemala saw a decades-long power struggle culminate in a civil war that killed over 200,000 people.

The United States has employed similar tactics across the continent. In El Salvador, we funded right-wing paramilitary death squads, targeting anyone suspected of harboring socialist tendencies. We’ve funneled more than $9 billion to the Colombian armed forces, notorious for their human rights violations, just since 2000. U.S. domestic policy further exacerbates the crises: We indiscriminately deport gang members to their native countries—to the chaotic power vacuums we created—with no regard for how this will affect those on the ground. As Óscar Martínez, author of A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America puts it:

These gangs—La Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18, Mirada Lokotes 13—weren’t born in Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador. They came from the United States, Southern California to be precise. They began with migrants fleeing a U.S.-sponsored war. And, in fleeing, some of these young men found themselves living in an ecosystem of gangs already established in California. And so they came together to defend themselves, and they established a name, and now this name is what we call our fear.

Our longstanding role in this crisis only makes anti-immigrant rhetoric all the more outrageous. But even beyond the moral imperative, xenophobic talking points don’t stand up to scrutiny. Though Trump may loudly proclaim that undocumented immigrants cost Americans jobs, a study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences found no direct correlation between immigration and unemployment. These findings have been echoed across political lines: Even CATO, a conservative think tank advocating for free markets, has pushed for immigration reform with a polemic titled “Immigrants Did Not Take Your Job.”  Native-born workers don’t tend to compete with immigrants because they occupy fundamentally different labor markets and have access to different jobs. Meanwhile, immigrants support themselves and their families, creating demand for goods and services, which, in turn, leads to more jobs. Scapegoating undocumented immigrants only deflects rightful anger from where it belongs: our exploitative economic system. The numbers alone, here presented by the Economic Policy Institute, perhaps make the best case: Since 1973, worker productivity has increased by 74.4 percent, but the average worker’s wages have only increased by 9.2 percent. Where is that surplus going? Looking back again to 1973, the average CEO made 22 times what their employees made. Today, the ratio is 296 to one. Pitting workers against each other when the richest 10 percent control two-thirds of the country’s net worth puts the onus on those most victimized by job losses and leaves us fighting for scraps. The bottom 90 percent controls a mere 26.9 percent of net worth.

As it stands, immigration enforcement costs more than the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and gun enforcement combined. There is a two-year backlog of deportation hearings, and even the judges currently in commission face scrutiny as to their ability to serve in an unbiased manner. The American Bar Association found significant disparities between judges and immigration outcomes; they found that one’s success in immigration court depends largely on which judge is assigned to the case. Given our lagging (and expensive) infrastructure, what would it cost for Trump to enact his immigration plans in full?

Deporting people on such a large, unprecedented scale presents a massive logistical challenge. Congress would need to hire more than 90,000 new immigration agents (we currently have 5,000); 30,000 federal immigration attorneys (we have 1,430), and 42,000 deportation personnel workers (we have 5,203). We would have to build 1,200 new immigration courts and charter over 17,000 flights and 30,000 bus trips each year. Factoring in these costs alone, mass deportation would cost roughly $10,070 per immigrant.

More devastating still would be the sudden loss in purchasing power and labor of 11 million people. A mass deportation strategy would lead to the loss of billions in purchases that affect profits, jobs, and the viability of countless businesses. The sudden lack of demand for goods and services would shrink the labor force significantly: Over the subsequent 20 years, the economy would be $1.6 trillion smaller.

Then there’s the wall. Trump claimed it would cost $8 billion to create a wall bordering the United States and Mexico. But actually, that wouldn’t even cover the cost of concrete. Add an additional $4.6 billion for steel and $27 billion in labor costs, and we’re now closer to a working estimate: $40.6 billion. These costs would be economically devastating, with repercussions long felt by future generations. In light of these numbers, there is no economic case for a policy of mass deportation—only an ideological one. One that sees immigrants as disposable. One that would tear households apart while having the gall to tout “family values.”  

This article was published in Family Values Issue #74 | Spring 2017

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