Trump to deport 2-3 million immigrants: A shift in practice or just tone?

Under the Obama administration, more than 2.5 million undocumented immigrants have been deported. But immigration experts point to Trump's message, not the raw numbers. 

Mike Blake/Reuters
Pedestrians make their way into the the United States from Mexico at the pedestrian border in Nogales, Ariz., October 9, 2016. President-elect Donald Trump said in a '60 Minutes' interview that aired Sunday that he plans to deport two to three million immigrants immediately.

Donald Trump says he will immediately deport up to half a million more undocumented immigrants than the more than 2.5 million President Obama sent home during his two terms in office. But it’s the tone of President-elect Trump that is markedly different than his predecessor.

“What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers, where a lot of these people, probably two million, it could be even three million, we are getting them out of our country or we are going to incarcerate,” Mr. Trump told CBS “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl in an interview that aired Sunday. “But we’re getting them out of the country, they’re here illegally.”

It’s unclear how the Trump administration will bring this plan to fruition. Trump appears to have softened some of his hard-line campaign promises on immigration. On paper, a Trump administration plan to deport up to three million undocumented immigrants isn’t that significant of an increase over the Obama administration's record, immigration experts have said. But it’s how the president-elect has spoken about deportation and the advisers he has appointed to his transition team that could mark a shift from the current administration and a return to or expansion of the raids of workplaces and neighborhoods and roving “task forces” of local police officers seen under former President George W. Bush.

“President Obama had prioritized the removal of undocumented immigrants that are criminals. The real question we’re not going to know the answer to is how does [Trump] put that in practice, ” says Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. “Does he fly through that list and then go onto folks who don’t have a criminal record but are technically here illegally and start deporting them?”

“The difference is in tone,” adds Terri Givens, the provost at Menlo College in Atherton, Calif., and an immigration researcher. “We don’t know yet what the numbers are going to be for Trump.”

In Trump’s interview on “60 Minutes,” he didn’t expand on whether the immediate  deportation of two to three million undocumented “criminal” immigrants meant his first 100 days in his office or over a longer period. He did say that once the border is “secure,” immigration officials would make a “determination” about the remaining undocumented immigrants in the country he said are “terrific people.” Trump also didn’t detail how immigrant officials would carry out these deportations.

But Trump’s policy speeches and the advisers he has appointed to his transition team offer a window into how his administration might go about it. In a speech he gave in September, Trump laid out a number of actions including building a wall along the US-Mexico border, the end of “catch and release” tactics, the tripling of ICE deportation officers, and the addition of 5,000 more Border Patrol agents. Following the speech, The Washington Post estimated his policies would add up to $51.2 billion and $66.9 billion in immigration enforcement costs over the next five years.

On Trump’s transition team are several politicians who have backed aggressive tactics to stop illegal immigration. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach came up with the “show me your papers” state law, passed byArizona, but partially undone by the US Supreme Court. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama subscribes to the approach. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich urged Trump on Sunday to take aggressive action on immigration.

While the price tag for these proposals could be about four times more than US spending on immigration enforcement now, the number of deportations wouldn’t be drastically more than under the Obama administration. In Mr. Obama’s first year in office, about 390,000 undocumented immigrants (criminals and non-criminals) were sent back to their home countries each year.

Leading up to the 2012 election, however, the administration's tone shifted to prioritize the deportation of criminal immigrants through a process called "prosecutorial discretion." According to a 2015 report from the American Immigration Council, immigrants (legal and undocumented) are less likely to commit serious crimes or be behind bars than the native-born, and high rates of immigration are associated with lower rates of violent crime and property crime. Under the Obama administration’s strategy, immigration officials were also discouraged from deporting other undocumented immigrants such as the parents of US-born children.

“In contrast, George W. Bush’s immigration policy tended to reflect the philosophy that all unauthorized immigrants in America ought to feel that deportation was a possibility at any given time — because if they felt the pressure, they might be inspired to leave on their own before ICE got to them,” writes Vox’s Dara Lindarra. “Supporters of this strategy see it as a really important part of maintaining the rule of law against unauthorized immigration. They believe that if you have broken a law, and you don’t feel afraid you might be punished for it, the law might as well not exist.”

Some proponents of this strategy include Mr. Kobach, the Kansas secretary of State, and Senator Sessions.

But Trump has softened some of his more hard-line immigration proposals. In addition to saying Sunday immigration officials could make a “determination” about noncriminal undocumented immigrants, he said the wall on the US-Mexico border, a centerpiece of his campaign, could be part-wall, part-fence. House Speaker Paul Ryan added in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper the same day that Trump and Republicans are “not planning on erecting a deportation force.”

Still, even if the Trump administration used a combination of Obama and Bush's immigration strategies, writes Vox's Ms. Lindarra, "even if it, in practice, wasn’t any more aggressive in immigration enforcement than either of its predecessors — it would put immigrants under a constant cloud of fear.In theory, that fear would be the point — it would be a reminder that violating immigration law has consequences."

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