The Mass Deportation Straw Man

(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Dan Stein Dan Stein is the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
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Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have captured about 80 percent of the delegates in the Republican nominating race so far. The two frontrunners have promised rigorous enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws should they be elected president. It’s a position which seems to be pretty popular with voters.

As generally happens whenever there is the slightest hint that our immigration laws might be enforced, the naysayers go nuts. This year is no exception. Supporters of the status quo are trotting out their favorite straw man argument. It goes something like this: We can’t round-up and deport 11 or 12 million people; even if we could it would be prohibitively expensive and; worse yet, our economy would collapse.

Despite what Trump has said (he says lots of things), enforcing our immigration laws would not require mass deportations, although we should deport illegal aliens when we catch them – something President Obama steadfastly refuses to do. Enforcing laws isn’t cheap, but it is the cost of not enforcing our immigration laws that is prohibitively expensive. And, no, our economy would not collapse. It would adjust to the absence of millions of illegal workers just as it adjusted to their large-scale presence.

The most recent bit of hysteria comes courtesy of Ben Gitis, an economist with the American Action Forum, described as a free market think tank, and echoed by media outlets like The Wall Street Journal. In Gitis’s view, enforcing our immigration laws would be to invite the apocalypse. He estimates the hypothetical cost of large-scale deportations to be about $400 billion, and result in a 5.7 percent contraction in our economy (which is actually less than the hit we took as a result of the recession touched off by the collapse of the subprime mortgage market).

Of course, enforcing our immigration laws would not result in an economic disaster. We don’t have to deport 11-12 million people because deportation is just one of many policy mechanisms we have available to enforce our immigration laws. Mitt Romney actually had it right in 2012. If we systematically remove all the incentives for people to violate our laws – preventing them from getting jobs here, eliminating access to non-essential public services and benefits, and ending sanctuary policies that shield lawbreakers – illegal aliens and prospective illegal aliens will respond rationally: Fewer will come and more will leave on their own.

Call it “self-deportation,” call it “voluntary compliance,” call it anything you want. Illegal aliens are rational people who respond rationally to the signals we send. Right now, they are responding rationally to the fact that we don’t enforce our laws.

While the American Action Forum’s figure for a hypothetical one-time scenario of mass round-ups and deportations is a large number, the cost of not enforcing our immigration laws is actually much, much greater. At the federal, state and local levels, U.S. taxpayers are burdened with about $100 billion in costs every year to provide education, health care, and a variety of other services and benefits to illegal aliens and their dependents. These are recurring costs that grow larger so long as we refuse enforce our immigration laws.

The 12 million or so illegal aliens living and working in this country illegally are the product of 30 years of neglect and subversion of immigration enforcement. No one should expect that we are going to reverse the damage overnight.

Through a sensible combination of enforcement and deterrence the number of illegal aliens in our labor force would decline steadily over time. The economic output of the 8 million illegal aliens believed to be working in this country would not be lost; it would be replaced by millions of unemployed, under-employed and discouraged American workers who are available to fill jobs that our economy truly needs. Moreover, the workers who replace illegal aliens as they exit our labor force are likely to command higher wages and have taxes deducted from their paychecks.

Opponents of immigration enforcement, both on the far left and libertarian right, know full-well that the alternative to mass amnesty for illegal aliens is not mass deportation. But that does not stop them from whipping up hysteria every time they think there’s a chance the government might respond to the will of the people and implement some kind of rational immigration enforcement policy.

As candidates supporting immigration enforcement continue to amass delegates and public support, we can expect an ever shriller response from the political, economic and media elites.