Would deportations even work?

And what does work mean?

Josh T. Smith
Oct 31 · 6 min read

Between 2000 and 2017, the United States government removed 5,562,827 people from the country. A removal is exactly what you think: a person is forced to leave the U.S. because they are here without legal documentation.

Source: Department of Homeland Security. Note: The data is for fiscal years starting October 1 of the calendar year prior.

There’s a surprise in the data if you examine the last two presidents. As reporters with Axios pointed out, President Trump has deported fewer people than his predecessor. President Obama deported more immigrants than any other president. Part of the reason for that is President Trump’s administration is struggling to staff immigration officers, and immigration courts are clogged with cases. That means that instead of being deported, many people get stuck somewhere in the middle of the process.

Five million is a lot of people to deport. Behind the scenes, some extensive bureaucracies and agencies manage the investigations into who is here illegally, court trials for the accused, and the ultimate deportation process. For example, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s proposed 2020 budget is $8.8 billion, which is only one component of the immigration system. Altogether, that makes it worth asking, what are we gaining from this?

Advocates for stricter immigration rules and increased deportations argue that undocumented immigrants working in the U.S. push down wages for citizens and make it harder for legal workers to find jobs. If these claims are correct, then restricting the flow of immigrants and deporting those who are already here should help protect U.S. workers.

Yet a new study indicates that deportations are ineffective at protecting U.S. workers. Even though deportations remove some workers, the research suggests that removals can make immigrants work more. This intensification effect ultimately swamps deportation’s intended effects of limiting competition for US workers. Altogether, this research indicates that deportations may be much less effective than previously thought.

Can you protect American workers by keeping foreign workers out?

The worry about immigrant workers is not unique. The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, halted Chinese immigration for ten years and prevented their naturalization. In the 1850s, the Know-Nothings fought against German and Irish immigrants settling in the U.S. Both of these early efforts to slow or deter immigration use the same economic argument they use today.

Groups concerned with immigration’s economic effects propose that bringing additional workers into the U.S. creates new competition for the existing jobs. That competition can then drive down wages and employment of native workers as immigrants tend to be willing to work for lower wages than U.S. workers.

This scenario is just what you’d expect to hear in an introduction to economics class. If instead of wages and job openings we were talking about apples, or any other product, an increase in supply should drive down the cost. If there are a lot of apples, then they are abundant, and apples are thus cheap. If there are only a few apples, then they become expensive. Why wouldn’t we think the same logic applies to how immigrants affect the wages of U.S. workers?

It turns out that there are limitations to the analogy. The most important limit is that immigrants don’t just compete for existing jobs. Immigrants also expand businesses and start their own. Having more people doesn’t mean that the existing resources and opportunities are now divided into smaller parts for everyone. In reality, more people means more brainpower working to solve problems and create new ideas. When someone moves into a neighborhood, they shop at local stores, get their car fixed by the neighborhood mechanic, and might even start their own business to provide services to their neighbors. In short, immigrants bring prosperity.

What happens when you deport workers?

Failing to consider how immigrants create opportunities is only the first misstep in the argument for restricting immigration. A new study by economists Oded Star and Lukasz Byra examine another problem in the debate. They ask a simple question, “Can a deportation policy backfire?”

In short, the authors find yes. That is, a policy meant to protect American workers from the threat of foreign competition can spur more competition from undocumented workers. Despite the surprising result, the economic logic driving it is simple.

The authors’ statistical model follows this basic storyline: an undocumented worker in the U.S. knows that they are subject to deportation and other forms of immigration enforcement or punishment for illegally being in the U.S. If the worker sees that enforcement efforts like deportation are increasing, they have several options. Two distinct paths are that they could return home, or they could work less and hope to avoid detection. There’s a third option; however, working even more.

Why would an immigrant subject to deportations work more if deportations are becoming more common? Think about it like this: an immigrant who comes to work in the U.S. can expect to make substantially more working here than they can outside of the U.S. Some migrants come with plans to stay only a short while to earn the funds to support their families. So undocumented workers who now face an increased chance of being deported might work more to capitalize on the higher wages now while they’re in the U.S. It turns out that this intensification effect is precisely what the economists performing the study discovered.

If deportations encourage immigrant workers to work more, then it means they can increase the competition for jobs and wages in the U.S. That holds even if fewer undocumented immigrants are working in the country. As the authors of the paper conclude, “expelling some undocumented migrants may not be as effective as contemplated; the deportation policy could work against its intended goal.”

For deportations to effectively prevent this work intensification effect from overpowering the effect of removing a portion of undocumented workers, the study suggests that at least 20 percent of undocumented workers would have to be deported. Although not all undocumented immigrants are workers, estimates of the number of illegal immigrants range between 10 and 12 million. For example, the Pew Research Center estimated that there were 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. in 2017. That’s about the same as the population of states like Georgia or Ohio.

Deporting 20 percent of undocumented workers would mean deporting around two million people. Yet, in 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported less than three percent of the total undocumented immigrants in the U.S., about 300,000 people. And, it’s currently struggling to keep up with the bureaucratic elements.

The Star and Byra study certainly don’t suggest that the U.S. should start deporting more undocumented workers, however. As they point out, even if deporting undocumented workers raised wages that employers pay in the U.S., that may backfire by encouraging more undocumented workers to come to the U.S. Instead, the authors provide insight into the limits of deportation to help native workers.

Immigration reform is better than deportation

A better path forward would be to provide more and more accessible avenues for legally working in the U.S. It’s clear that the U.S. holds unparalleled opportunities. The pull of those opportunities will always mean immigrants seek out ways to come to the U.S. If people will make their way to the U.S. either legally or illegally, that makes the question one of how to manage the entry process.

Instead of immigration policies that severely limit immigration or that focus on deporting peaceful individuals already here, policymakers should be creating systems that encourage integration and cooperation. The first step towards that ideal should be reducing the resources invested in deporting immigrant workers that ultimately backfire.

Josh T. Smith

Written by

I'm interested in energy issues, environmental policies, immigration questions, and almost everything else too.

The Benchmark

A publication by The Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University

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