Pay as They Go: The Cruel Calculus of Deportation

By Michelle Chen Mar 21, 2010

On Sunday, thousands are set to rally in the capital to demand a just and fair immigration policy. Though the protesters will try to make their voices ring as loud as ever, perhaps nothing will speak more to the cause of comprehensive reform than the people who aren’t there to contribute their voices. The number of deportations–including people forcibly removed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as well as so-called "voluntary" departures in which people are pushed to leave on their own–clocked in at 387,790 last fiscal year. So Obama’s first year in the White House saw a five percent increase in removals over the previous year. This escalating pattern of enforcement has split apart an estimated 1.6 million family members since the late 1990s, according to Human Rights Watch. And yet 10.8 million undocumented immigrants remain this country. Though unauthorized immigration seems to have waned during the recession, the number still represents an increase of about 300,000 since 2005. So in the absence of real reform, what’s left to do? How about finishing the job? According to a study by the Center for American Progress, if the government were to attempt a program of total deportation of the undocumented population, the price tag should give pause to every right-wing anti-immigrant crusader in Congress, and maybe plant the tiniest seed of doubt in their minds about the cost of their hateful rhetoric. CAP added up the many expenses involved in the industry of deportation–from the legal processing to the construction of new detention facilities to the budget for ICE’s "Fugitive Operation Program" to a one-way flight home courtesy ICE’s Detention and Removal Operations Flight Operations Unit. The final figure is sobering:

[T]he total cost of mass deportation and continuing border interdiction and interior enforcement efforts would be $285 billion (in 2008 dollars) over five years. Specifically, this report calculates a price tag of $200 billion to enforce a federal dragnet that would snare the estimated 10.8 million undocumented immigrants in the United States over five years.6 That amount, however, does not include the annual recurring border and interior enforcement spending that will necessarily have to occur. It would cost taxpayers at least another $17 billion annually (in 2008 dollars) to maintain the status quo at the border and in the interior, or a total of nearly $85 billion over five years. That means the total five-year immigration enforcement cost under a mass deportation strategy would be approximately $285 billion.

That doesn’t even factor in the total impact on the economy as the workforce is drained of workers in every sector, in numbers that rival the population of some states. (Undocumented workers make up about five percent of the labor force today.) And despite Rep. Lamar Smith’s (R-TX) argument that ramping up Homeland Security’s removal system could resolve joblessness for deserving Americans, the sheer magnitude of this enforcement-only approach, particularly in the midst of the current crisis, would wreak immeasurable havoc on local economies, families, and the social fabric into which these households have firmly woven themselves, against all odds. Meanwhile, a recent economic analysis by University of California at Los Angeles professor Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda projects that legalizing currently undocumented immigrants would generate about $1.5 trillion in new wealth within ten years–and, of course, by keeping families together, would prevent massive emotional suffering on both sides of the border. With all the acrimony on Capitol Hill over the deficit and "fiscal responsibility," CAP reminds us that "Spending $285 billion would require $922 in new taxes for every man, woman, and child in this country. If this kind of money were raised, it could provide very public and private school student from prekindergarten to the 12th grade an extra $5,100 for their education." Many Republicans may twitch and shudder when asked to commit taxpayer funds to health care for their constituents, or confronting the impending threats of climate change, or even temporarily extending aid to the unemployed. But when it comes to cracking down on one of the backbones of the economy, they speak as if no price is too high to pay to destroy the undocumented population they’ve helped create. Congress is now beginning to move on various reform proposals, and grassroots groups are seizing on the moment to leverage the growing political and economic clout of immigrant communities. It’s likely that whatever legislation emerges will be laden with shortsighted restrictions and punitive fees, along with potential infringements on civil liberties–all of which could further entrench inequalities in the low-wage workforce. But as long as money talks in Washington, the ugly legislative battle will at least leave the opposition speechless once they have to face the real costs of getting rid of all those immigrants that America supposedly can’t afford. Image: Immigration march in Minnesota (Tylor Boland / Minnesota Public Radio)