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The unintended consequences of deporting millions of illegal immigrants

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raid several homes to arrest specific illegal immigrants.
Sarah L. Voisin | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raid several homes to arrest specific illegal immigrants.

President Donald Trump's executive order to remove undocumented migrants living in the United States delivers on one of his main campaign promises. The president has blamed Mexican migrants for serious crimes, including rape. He frames the measure as both enforcing immigration laws and protecting Americans from what the president has called "a significant threat to national security and public safety."

Following through on this order is no small task. Although the number of unauthorized immigrants has decreased over the last decade, about 11 million undocumented immigrants currently live in the U.S. according to the Pew Research Center. About half of them are Mexican, although the percentage from Asian and Central American countries has increased in recent years. Most undocumented migrants have spent a good part of their lives in this country: an estimated two thirds of adults have lived in the U.S. for at least a decade.

A recent Pew Research poll suggests that 58 percent of Americans support increasing deportations of people here illegally. President Trump's new policy might therefore win political points in the short-term, but is likely to produce a number of negative economic and political costs in the longer term:

1. Worsening the labor shortage
There is a shortage of labor in America's agricultural industry, where between 25 percent and 70 percent of the U.S. farm workforce is estimated to be undocumented. Both the decline in Mexican migration to the U.S. and the Obama administration's roughly 2.7 million deportations have contributed to this shortage, which has been driving up the price of agricultural products. If the Trump administration proceeds with mass deportations, the labor shortage would worsen dramatically, forcing American farm owners to shut down, resulting in higher prices for the American consumer, and making the industry less competitive internationally.

2. Costing American taxpayers
Deporting millions of undocumented migrants comes at a huge additional expense by the government. The 5,000 border patrol and 10,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents the government intends to hire represent 25 percent and 50 percent increases, respectively. One conservative estimate puts the additional cost around $4 billion in the agencies' yearly operating expenditures.

3. Undermining trust in local police
If the local police are acting as immigration agents to enforce federal law, Latino communities will come to fear rather than trust local police. This would affect not only unauthorized migrants' willingness to approach law enforcement to denounce crimes or tip the police, but also Latino U.S. citizens who would become wary of interacting with local police out of concern for relatives or acquaintances who have made their lives in the U.S. The inability to rely on information from the community would become a major road block for policing, especially in those communities that might be most vulnerable to crime.

4. Driving millions into the shadows
The administration's efforts to deport unauthorized migrants for minor infractions would force these sectors deeper underground. Unauthorized migrants would become reluctant to seek medical services, which could lead to public health problems. They could also keep their children—many of them U.S. citizens-from attending school because of fear of deportation. In a post 9/11 world, the U.S. will be safer by bringing unauthorized migrants increasingly into the system, not by marginalizing them.

It is not clear that deporting millions of undocumented migrants already living in the U.S. would bring large enough benefits to compensate for the significant associated costs. The Trump administration should pursue measures to secure America's borders and prevent unauthorized migration, but the cost of mass deportations of undocumented immigrants without a criminal record is a misguided and ultimately harmful policy.

Commentary by Gustavo A. Flores-Macías, associate professor of government at Cornell University. He is the author of After Neoliberalism? The Left and Economic Reforms in Latin America. Follow him on Twitter @Gustavo_F_M.

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