General John Kelly’s ramping up of deportation measures against undocumented residents of the US, in accordance with Donald Trump’s campaign promises, contains many hidden dangers.
The rational way to deal with long-term unauthorized immigrants would be to offer them a path to citizenship, not waste taxpayers’ money deporting 10.9 million people–the vast majority of whom do essential and backbreaking labor that the native-born eschew. Most people don’t realize that there is no way for someone brought up in the US without citizenship to apply for it. The US needs its immigrants if it is to remain a great power.
If the undocumented residents of the US who have not committed any other crime here become afraid that they will be arrested on sight, this fear will endanger the rest of us.
The undocumented will become less likely to seek drivers’ licenses and automobile insurance, which is a menace to other US residents. California, which has three million, convinced 800,000 undocumented residents to get drivers’ licences, a victory for public safety, which could now be undone.
Likewise, in California some 93% of the children of undocumented families are enrolled in school. Some proportion of these children were born in the US and we want them educated as future citizens. But will undocumented parents start avoiding all government facilities, including schools?
It is undesirable that this large population avoid getting vaccinations, or that battered women should fear to go to the authorities. Making law-abiding undocumented people go underground poses substantial health and other risks to the rest of us.
There is also a danger that Trump/Kelly’s irrational obsession with the law-abiding undocumented will overwhelm local police departments, whether financially or with regard to manpower and jail capacity. Some departments are already announcing that they can’t handle these extra duties.
Trump’s conviction that there is a crisis of illegal immigration into the United States in 2017 is misplaced. There was a crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, resulting in some 12.2 million undocumented residents of the US by 2007.
In the past decade, that number has fallen by nearly a million and a half, to 10.9 million. This is true even though the number of deportations fell in 2013 and 2014. (Trump says that there are 30 million undocumented residents of the US, and alleges that three million of them voted in the presidential election. These are imaginary numbers much more imaginary than the square root of -1.)
In California, seven percent of the undocumented are married to American citizens, and another percentage is married to green card holders. Many have children who are American citizens. Trump’s idea that any significant number are young male gang members with no roots in the US is monstrous in its gargantuan falsity.
That the crisis of unauthorized immigration is a problem of previous decades and hardly so urgent today is demonstrated by the simple fact that 66 percent of the undocumented have been in the US at least 10 years. In 2014, only seven percent of undocumented Mexicans had been in the US less than five years.
Under the old rules by which ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) operated, which have now been changed by General Kelly, undocumented people who weren’t near the border and who had not committed a crime were relatively safe from deportation. But it was not as though the Obama administration was sloughing off on deporting the undocumented. In some years Obama deported substantially more people than Bush had in his last year as president.
The old policy was to concentrate on criminals and leave the law-abiding alone. Last year, 92 percent of all the persons deported after being arrested by ICE agents in the interior of the US had been convicted of a crime (other than unauthorized entry).
Over two-thirds of those deported were arrested in the vicinity of the border, often by other agencies than ICE, including local police. Of these deportees picked up near the border, nearly 60 percent had also previously been convicted of a crime. That leaves about 100,000 people arrested who had no previous criminal record. Almost all of them were picked up near the border.
But only 2000 of the deportees were known gang members, so these individuals, who loom so large in Trump’s imagination, are a tiny proportion of the undocumented. They were less than one percent of the deported.
Only about half of the unauthorized immigrants who came in during 2014 were Mexicans. In recent years more Mexicans have been leaving than coming into the US.
More of those arriving are from Central America, and they are fleeing dangerous situations in their home countries. In 2016, some 100,000 unauthorized immigrants into the US from Central America claimed asylum because of the danger they faced back home. These asylum claims have to be decided by a judge and take a lot of energy. The US would certainly be better off launching Marshall Plan for Central America and trying to help those countries’ economies grow faster and trying to provide for more democracy and less danger for average citizens. Such steps are the real way to cut down on unauthorized immigration.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on February 22, 2017, on Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion, a website featuring commentary by Professor Juan Cole. It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Cole.