The Corner

Politics & Policy

Trump, Eisenhower and the Challenges of Mass Deportation

During this week’s debate Donald Trump suggested he could return the country to immigration policies seen under President Eisenhower:

Let me just tell you that Dwight Eisenhower, good president, great president, people liked him. “I like Ike,” right? The expression. “I like Ike.” Moved a 1.5 million illegal immigrants out of this country, moved them just beyond the border. They came back. Moved them again beyond the border, they came back. Didn’t like it. Moved them way south. They never came back.

The ill-named “Operation Wetback” was formally announced in 1954. But the mass deportation effort occurred at the same time as a significant expansion of the bracero program, a temporary guest worker program for agriculture. In 1952, the United States brought in 197,000 Mexican guest workers; in 1956, it brought in more than 445,000. The stick of deportation came with the carrot of more legal guest worker opportunities.

A mass deportation effort would be exponentially more difficult than during the Eisenhower era. For starters, the 1950s effort focused almost entirely on the four states that border Mexico. Illegal immigrants are more dispersed today than decades ago: New Jersey is estimated to have about 550,000 illegal immigrants in 2010; Illinois, 525,000; New York, 625,000; Georgia, 425,000; North Carolina, 325,000; Washington state 230,000.

Even more importantly, today there’s a large, well-organized, well-funded effort opposing the deportation of illegal immigrants that includes some state and city governments.

Any perceived or real brutality or human rights abuses in the deportation process would be given saturation coverage that would make Abu Gharib look like a one-day story. Considering the sorts of protests we’ve seen at Occupy Wall Street, Ferguson and college campuses today, there’s a significant risk of a violent resistance to the deportation efforts. A mass deportation effort from coast to coast would be the most controversial government policy since the Iraq War. A Trump Administration would need to be prepared to weather a firestorm of public criticism that would make the Bush administration’s bad days look mild.

Having said all that, the United States government deports six-figure totals of illegal immigrants each year; this would not be a change in the law but a change of scale in the enforcement of that existing law. Yes, deportations are down 42 percent since 2012 – welcome to President Obama’s second term – but that still amounts to 231,000, and roughly 136,000 for convictions of non-immigration crimes. The U.S. deported 419,384 people in 2012, with no signs of a police state or Hillary Clinton’s predicted “boxcars” of human cargo.

Most of the objections from John Kasich in the debate, i.e. “Children would be terrified,” can apply to any deportations, including the ones we’re doing now. (We can’t set or reject national policy options on the idea that it may frighten hypothetical children, or that it could “separate families.”)

The irony is that there isn’t that there isn’t an enormous difference between the end points of the Trump and Kasich positions. The other night Kasich described his preferred course that if illegal immigrants “been law-abiding, they pay a penalty. They get to stay. We protect the wall. Anybody else comes over, they go back.” Under Trump’s plan, at least as he describes it, he “would get people out and I would have an expedited way of getting them back into the country, so they can be legal. Let them be legal.” In short, after returning to their home country, illegal immigrants who had no criminal history would be able to return to the U.S. under the “expedited” system with work visas, but no path to citizenship.

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