House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said last weekend that there will be no deportation force rounding up undocumented immigrants. President-elect Donald Trump, Ryan’s new boss, said he will deport 2 million undocumented immigrants. Both may be right.
Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who called the League of Women Voters “communist” for trying to thwart his voter-suppression efforts, is a key immigration policy adviser to Trump. He told the Los Angeles Times last week, “There is vast potential to increase the level of deportations without adding personnel.”
With a change of policy, each of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. would become instantly vulnerable to deportation. To enact those policies, all Trump has to do is rescind Barack Obama’s less aggressive ones. Ryan wouldn’t have to lift a legislative finger to realize Kobach’s “vast potential.”
Trump has repeatedly said he would target criminals. But that’s the current policy of the Obama administration. The president-elect is unlikely to hew to the status quo after making promises in his campaign to be dramatically more aggressive.
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A big question is how fast Trump intends to remove 2 million to 3 million people – and from where. In Obama’s first term, when he was trying to create the political space for Republicans to support comprehensive immigration reform, he deported more than 360,000 undocumented immigrants per year, with a peak of more than 400,000 in 2012. However, most of those removed were not longtime residents. The peak number of deportations from the nation’s interior, as opposed to those apprehended near the border, was 188,000 in 2011.
In Obama’s second term, deportations declined, especially after the restrictionist wing of the GOP killed reform in 2014. The nature of deportees shifted as well, with criminals, whom the Obama administration prioritized, becoming a larger share in his second term. Settled, noncriminal immigrants gained a measure of security.
Even without public resistance, legally deporting 2 million over the course of Trump’s first term might be difficult. The Pew Research Center estimates that the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. declined after the recession, and has since stabilized at about 11 million.
Most have been in the U.S. for more than a decade. They are less likely to be transients “living in the shadows” than fixtures living in the open. If Trump pursues large numbers of immigrants in the interior, he will find them – at home, at work, in school. Many would put up a legal fight.
In part because the Obama administration has already removed so many, there are unlikely to be 2 million undocumented criminals remaining, let alone 3 million. The Migration Policy Center estimates that about 820,000, or 7 percent, of undocumented immigrants have criminal records. About 300,000 are felons.
Rescinding Obama’s executive policies, including his deferred action for more than 700,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, whose personal data is now in the hands of a government soon to be administered by Trump, will ratchet up pressure on undocumented families.
Especially if Trump dramatically increases deportations in settled communities, some may begin plotting a departure. Others, including both citizens and undocumented members, will be torn apart. According to the Migration Policy Institute, about one third of these parents have an American citizen child. Other undocumented immigrants, with or without children, are married to legal residents.
How the broad infrastructure of pro-immigrant groups would respond to this shift is unclear. Obama was stung by their criticism, particularly when some began calling him “deporter in chief.” Trump is unlikely to be.
Catholic bishops won’t like large numbers of their parishioners being deported willy-nilly, and may make a fuss. Businesses that depend on immigrant labor won’t like the depletion of their work forces. But the easiest targets will be in pliant red states, where local governments won’t protect immigrants and the economic hit will be portrayed as the price of cultural dominance.
There may be one thin reed – model-thin – on which to rest immigrant hopes: Melania Trump.
In August, when questions were raised about her premarital immigration status, Donald Trump said his wife would hold a news conference to prove she had been in the U.S. legally and complied with the law in the 1990s. “Let me tell you one thing,” Trump said. “She has got it so documented, so she’s going to have a little news conference over the next couple of weeks.”
The promised news conference, and documents, never materialized. In November, The Associated Press reported that documents it had obtained, including records of payments, showed Mrs. Trump had worked in the U.S. before she was legally authorized. According to the AP, the Trump campaign did not respond to written questions about her status.
Trump’s hypocrisy is durable stuff; it survived the rigors of a presidential campaign. But if Democrats and immigration groups make an issue of his wife’s immigration record, this particular instance might gain some traction.
With their dire change in fortunes, undocumented immigrants are in desperate need of a new narrative. As she prepares to move into the White House, Melania’s story may be uncannily on point.
Francis Wilkinson writes on politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg View.