Migrants get on the patrol vehicle of the U.S. Border Patrol on February 13, 2024 in San Diego, California. VCG/Qian Weizhong

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Trump's proposed mass deportations would backfire on US workers

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Photo Credit: VCG/Qian Weizhong

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The presumptive presidential nominee of one of the two major political parties in the United States has embraced an election platform of mass deportation for immigrants who are in the country illegally. He has called for military troops to seize millions of people each year in “workplace raids and other sweeps in public places” and sending those caught into “giant detention camps.” The “largest domestic deportation in American history” is proposed to begin on January 20, 2025.

As this candidate’s top adviser on immigration has stated: “Mass deportation will be a labor-market disruption celebrated by American workers, who will now be offered higher wages with better benefits to fill these jobs.”

But the best economic research on past deportations suggests the opposite. The immigrants being targeted for removal are the lifeblood of several parts of the US economy. Their deportation will instead prompt US business owners to cut back or start fewer new businesses, in some cases shifting their investments to less labor-intensive technologies and industries, while scaling back production to reflect the loss of consumers for their goods.

Prior episodes of mass deportations and exclusions have occurred at several moments in US history. Research has shown that, far from generating economic benefits, their net effect was to reduce employment and earnings for US workers—in the short run and long run.

For example, the Bush and Obama administrations seized and deported about half a million people under an initiative called Secure Communities between 2008 and 2014. This policy had a unique feature that allowed economists to rigorously measure its effects. The initiative was rolled out in different counties at different times, enabling economists to compare US workers in places where mass deportation was underway to their counterparts in otherwise similar counties where mass deportation had not yet begun.

Research quantifies the loss to US workers from mass deportations

Mass deportation under Secure Communities substantially harmed US workers county by county, reducing both their employment and wages. The worst harms were inflicted on the least educated and most vulnerable US workers. A team led by Professor Chloe East of the University of Colorado published these results a few months ago in the most rigorous and selective academic journal for labor economists (published study; ungated pre-print). The study was carried out at the highest levels of quality and transparency.

The results are staggering. They imply that for every one million unauthorized immigrant workers seized and deported from the United States, 88,000 US native workers were driven out of employment. So if the presumptive nominee's campaign plan for “millions” of deportations per year called for the removal of three million unauthorized immigrant workers per year, that would mean 263,000 fewer jobs held by US native workers, compounded each additional year that mass deportations continue. These figures do not reflect temporary layoffs from which US workers could immediately recover by turning around and finding another job. They represent persistent declines in the number of jobs available to be held by any US workers.

How the disappearance of migrant workers negatively affects the labor market for US workers

How did these deportations hurt US workers? The answer is that the US labor market is more complex than the cartoon economy in the minds of some politicians, who think that business owners faced with loss of immigrant workers will simply hire native workers to replace them. But in the real economy, employers respond in several other ways. Business owners hit by sudden reductions to labor supply invest less in new business formation. They invest their capital in other industries and in technologies that use lower-skill labor less intensively, reducing demand for US workers too. That reduction in capital income reduces capital tax revenue to the government, too, a large but often ignored ripple effect that turns mass deportation into a net fiscal negative.

And in a one-two punch, the disappearance of migrant workers also dries up local demand at grocery stories, leasing offices, and other nontraded services. The resulting blow to demand for all workers overwhelms the reduction in supply of foreign workers. A few US workers might benefit; most are worse off.

Historical examples

This broad pattern has recurred across US history, a history that politicians ignore or willingly forget. When the Kennedy and Johnson administrations moved to exclude most Mexican workers from the US economy in the 1960s, this drastic action generated no new jobs or earnings for US farm workers. Farmers urgently mechanized production instead but could not fully offset the harm of losing workers: Affected farmers suffered long-term declines in income and land value. When the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations led the mass deportation of roughly 400,000 Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, they harmed US workers’ employment and earnings in the most affected counties. The Coolidge administration’s largest-ever crackdown against immigration actually harmed US worker’s employment by slashing industrial production, leaving fewer good jobs for everyone.

In all of these cases, politicians failed to account for rational employers’ divestment from the areas and industries hardest hit by mass deportation. That predictable and reasonable divestment more than offsets any simple substitution of native workers for deported immigrants.

The lessons of history, even worse than being ignored, are now being twisted into falsehood. Some anti-immigrant politicians have praised an instance of mass deportation of Mexican workers in 1954 under the Eisenhower administration, with the unfortunate but official name “Operation Wetback,” a slur referring to immigrants swimming across rivers to get to the United States. But what these officials fail to mention is that the US government simultaneously and vastly increased the number of lawful, temporary, employment-based visas for Mexican workers to access the United States. This had the broad effect of shifting mutually beneficial international labor supply from the black market to lawful channels—preserving their opportunities to complement US workers on and off farms.

Eisenhower’s balanced portfolio of policies sought to formalize a labor market that greatly benefited the United States and American workers. The mass deportation of 1954 was highly problematic and wrongly ensnared thousands of US citizens of Mexican descent. But it was not simply a policy of immigrant exclusion. The mass creation of lawful migration channels stood at the heart of Eisenhower’s crackdown, as detailed in historical studies by Kitty Calavita and Kelly Lytle Hernandez. People seeking to strengthen the rule of law have tools at their disposal other than domestic military deployment for sweeps and seizures into vast prison camps.

Outdated immigration laws are at the heart of today's border crisis

Expanding lawful channels for migration would not only support the rule of law, it would also benefit US workers. When US firms are randomly selected to access lawful visas for basic laborers, they do not swap out native workers; they expand operations with net job creation for US workers, particularly in rural areas. When US farms get access to lawful visas for agricultural labor, they do not hire fewer natives but raise production to create numerous downstream jobs for natives.

The controversy over immigration has unfortunately focused on the so-called border “crisis.” But immigrants crowding at the US southern border are driven by economic opportunity that would actually be an opportunity for mutual gain.  

At the core of today’s crisis lie laws written 59 years ago, which have not been substantially updated for 34 years. Congress should stop assuming that those laws’ meager, arbitrary, and fossilized provisions for lawful migration pathways must have been written with supernaturally precise foresight of today’s economy, today’s needs, today’s technology, and today’s demographic pressures. They should stop calling simply for draconian measures to enforce the law, at all costs, at all harms.

The alternative path is to recognize the enormous pressure at the border for what it is: a crisis of constricted and hopelessly outdated channels for lawful migration. If you think that current lawful channels are up to the challenge of regulating the border, count up the number of US visas issued to people in Northern Central America—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—last year. Count all the visas, even visas that none of them could hope to access. That number of visas doesn’t even reach two percent of the number of people stopped at the border. That is, for every 50 migrants from those countries arriving at the border, only one could hypothetically have gotten any visa. That drastic bottleneck was set in stone a generation ago without any consideration of today’s conditions or of the economic contribution those migrants can make in the United States. Our drastically outdated laws are the core reason many of those migrants arrive chaotically at the border.

For those seeking a stronger American economy and American rule of law, shouts for shock troops, mass purges, and deportation camps ring in the air. History teaches us that as a tool for economic policy, those purges will do worse than fail; they will do harm to working families across this country. Fortunately, other paths lay open for those with the wisdom to take them.

Data Disclosure

This publication does not include a replication package.

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