How Mass Deportations Work

Yonatan Zunger
Nov 22, 2016 · 5 min read

Last October, when Trump was first promising to deport people en masse, Shaun King did the math and asked a rather pointed question:

It’s a fair question. The number comes from his original promise to deport eleven million people within the first two years of his presidency. And even though actually answering King’s question felt a bit like doing a sociopathic sort of “What If?,” sometimes it’s good to see what’s actually involved in a policy proposal.

Today, slightly more than a year later, Trump is president-elect and is still planning mass deportations, although the numbers change every time he speaks. But their basic scale hasn’t, and so it’s worth going back to my response to King at the time. Here’s the rather ugly math.


If you want to deport all of these people, you’ll have to do a few things:

(1) Figure out who you want to deport.
(2) Round them up.
(3) Transport them to wherever you’re deporting them to.
(4) Dump them there and get them to stay.

The biggest things that probably aren’t blindingly obvious are:

- Identifying people is harder than it sounds, since it’s not like everyone has proof of citizenship tattooed on their arms. You’ll have to put people in the field, and they’ll have to have a lot of leeway to deal with ambiguous cases. Which is another way of saying they need the power to decree someone an outsider and deport them. (Edited 24 Feb 2017: And this power is being increasingly transferred to DHS officers as “expedited removal.”)

- Rounding people up is easier than it sounds, Ben Carson to the contrary. The police have more guns, and if you’re already at the point where the local field commander is willing to say “this entire neighborhood is probably deportable,” it turns out that rounding people up and/or shooting resisters isn’t very challenging at all. Most people will stop shooting when you threaten to kill their families, and the ones that don’t, well, you just kill them and their families.

- Transporting people is much harder than it sounds. 450,000 people per month is a lot; even with serious packing, you can only fit about 80 people into a standard boxcar or truck; a typical modern train might have 140 boxcars or so, which means it can only transport about 11,000 people, and loading them takes time. Unfortunately, people are somewhat scattered out, so if you want this to work, you’ll need to use trucks and so on to deliver people to staging areas, where you can store them for a while until a train is ready. Fortunately, there’s a lot of prior art on how to concentrate people in a small space while they’re getting ready to be loaded on trains.

- Mass-deporting people to an area you don’t control is harder than it seems, because the people who control that area are likely to object. You’d probably have to conquer and subjugate Mexico as a first step, and then set up receiving camps on the other end. Unloading areas would have to be fairly heavily armed and guarded, of course, to keep people from attacking you; the logistics are somewhat similar to the staging camps on the sending side, only you have to worry less about killing people. (Edited 24 Feb 2017: One thing that’s made this easier is the decision to simply deport everyone Latinish to Mexico, regardless of their country of origin. That solves the problem of having to figure out just where to send them, which would require quite a bit of extra process as well.)

- Running this is going to be really expensive, so you might consider finding ways for the project to help pay for itself. So long as you have people concentrated in one place, maybe have them do labor as well? They can pay for their own deportation!

So I suppose the good news is that we can answer Shaun’s question fairly straightforwardly, because this has been done before and we do know what it looks like. We don’t quite have the right expertise in the US, because none of our past mass-deportation efforts were quite at this scale per month; the transatlantic slave trade moved roughly this many people over three centuries, the Trail of Tears moved only about 16,500 people, and the internment of Japanese civilians during WWII only about 110,000. But outside the US, there’s much more experience with it; probably the world’s top expert on it was Adolf Eichmann (1906–1962), who ran a program very much like this which managed to move people at about this rate.

Trump’s team may be interested in checking him out; there’s a tremendous amount written about his system, I’m sure it would be very helpful. And as I noted in a comment below, the design of this program really wasn’t easy; they had to iterate through quite a lot of trial solutions before they could come up with a final one. You should always save work by studying prior art when you can.


Footnote added in 2016: When this was first published, people responded with two major ways this could be simplified. One is to note that Obama has deported a tremendous number of people as well — 2.5 million in 2009 — without any of this. However, those deportations are primarily of people intercepted at or near the border; the 11 million people which Trump wants to target are already living across the country, and this would be in addition to deportations at the border.

The second is the idea of “self-deportation.” Stripped of its fancy verbiage, this means to make conditions in the United States sufficiently intolerable that people flee the country. It could be done by a range of means: persistent raids of people’s workplaces and homes, mass policing of immigrant neighborhoods by ICE agents, stopping people on any or no pretext (quite allowable under Bush- and Obama-era rules!) and demanding that they show papers.

Note that you probably aren’t carrying proof of your citizenship or legal residence right now; if you were Latino and in an area under ICE surveillance, that would easily end up with you being arrested. Since being in the country without documents is a misdemeanor, there is no automatic right to counsel, and immigration courts are famous for doing their trials in bulk — so even if you have all the required papers at home (which about 25% of American citizens don’t), getting in touch with your family and getting those papers is far from certain. A certain number of citizens and legal residents will be deported… part of that “by-catch” problem mentioned above. This is the sort of reason why “Papers, please!” laws are generally considered really bad ideas.

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