Border Walls, Deportations and the Final Presidential Debate

Donald Kerwin
Executive Director
Center for Migration Studies

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Border Walls, Deportations and the Final Presidential Debate

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump clashed sharply in their final debate before the November 8th election. Below are responses to three of Trump’s immigration claims and proposals during the debate and throughout his campaign. The answers matter since both candidates have vowed to pursue immigration reform in the early days of their administrations.

Trump: “[S]he wants to give amnesty, which is a disaster and very unfair to all the people that are waiting on line for many, many years.”

Immigration status is a fluid condition, with many undocumented people on a path to legal status at any point in time and many more who qualify for status under our current laws. Each year, previously undocumented persons make up a high percentage of new lawful permanent residents (LPRs). In addition, an estimated 4.4 million immigrants qualify for a visa, 97 percent of them based on a close family relationship to a US citizen or LPR. Rather than seeking to gain an advantage, these mostly undocumented immigrants languish in visa backlog lines, often “for many, many years,” even decades. Perhaps another 14 to 15 percent of the 10.9 million US undocumented population are potentially eligible for an immigration benefit or relief that would put them on a path to LPR status and citizenship, but they do not know it or cannot afford to pursue it. For them, immigration status is an access to justice issue. Finally, past “earned legalization” bills would not have allowed undocumented persons to “jump” ahead of persons who had been waiting for visas. Applicants would have been required to go to the back of the line and, under some proposals, to wait for more than a decade for a green card.

Trump: “We need strong borders.”

We have them. The undocumented population fell steadily between 2008 and 2014. Border apprehensions are at roughly one-fourth of their historic highs. A growing percentage of illegal border crossers are fleeing pervasive violence and individual persecution in the Northern Triangle states of Central America. They are refugees or fleeing refugee-like conditions. Others are seeking to reunify with family members in the United States. Neither group can be easily deterred from migrating. Moreover, as former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff points out, fencing has value in certain heavy crossing areas near towns or highways, but in other places “makes no sense at all” and “doesn’t add any value.” In addition, most persons entering the undocumented population in recent years have overstayed their temporary visas, not crossed borders illegally. In short, additional fencing, much less 2,000 miles of it, does not respond to refugee-producing conditions, the separation of families, visa over-stayers, or the need for effective border policies.

“We’re going to get them [all] out.”

Rather than an exercise in upholding the rule of law, the deportation of nearly 11 million persons would require the law enforcement tactics of a police state. In addition, according to one study, the US would need to spend $400 and $600 billion in immigration enforcement over 20 years to accomplish this goal. The loss of this population would also shrink the US labor force by 6.4 percent, and the GDP by $1.6 trillion over 20 years. It would particularly decimate industries in which unauthorized laborers – which constitute more than 5 percent of the US workforce overall — are concentrated.

It would also devastate millions of American families. The undocumented population includes high and growing percentages of persons with long tenure and strong family and equitable ties to the United States, including 1.9 million who have lived in the US for 20 years or more, 1.6 million for 15 to 19 years, and 3.1 million for 10 to 14 years. There are 3.8 million undocumented immigrants with at least one US citizen or LPR child. If the concern is that unscrupulous employers use undocumented immigrants to depress wages and working conditions, the better solution would be to strengthen and enforce federal and state labor and workplace protection laws. We should also bring undocumented workers out of the shadows so they are able to exercise the rights and responsibilities of all workers.

In short, broad, integrated reform of the underlying legal immigration system, coupled with effective engagement of migrant sending states, would better address the challenges to which Trump’s largely symbolic and wholly untenable policy proposals seek to respond.

* This post is also published on the Huffington Post on October 22, 2016, available at