The Staggering Cost of Mass Deportation

The Center for American Progress estimates that a mass deportation strategy for the 10.8 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. would cost $285 billion.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) has updated its estimate of the cost of the immigration policy alternative advocated by immigration hardliners inside and outside of Congress: mass deportation of the 10.8 million undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S.  The CAP study, The Costs of Mass Deportation, makes the assumption that such a program would be conducted over a period of five years.  Using publicly available information, CAP estimates the mass deportation strategy would cost $285 billion dollars.

To put this amount in perspective, CAP notes that raising that amount would require $922 in additional taxes for every man, woman, and child in the country.  $285 billion, if put into education, would provide an extra $5,100 for the education of every elementary and secondary public and private student in the U.S. 

Putting the number of people subject to a mass deportation effort in perspective, CAP notes that the 10.8 million unauthorized immigrants is 3.5 percent of our population, or nearly the population of our New England states.

CAP breaks down the component and per-person cost of mass deportation:

  • $18,310 per person for apprehension costs
  • $3,355 per person for detention
  • $817 per person for legal processing costs
  • $1,000 per person average transportation costs

Why the estimate is probably too low

There are a number of reasons that CAP’s estimate is probably unrealistically conservative.  Many of these reasons CAP acknowledges.

First, just from observing how new government programs are financed in recent years, the idea that there would be a new tax amounting to $922 per person is unrealistic.  The money would be borrowed, so we would have to add to the cost the finance charge for borrowing the money to engage in the mass deportation project.

Regarding detention, the CAP study assumes that detaining an extra 1.73 million people—a 71 percent increase over current levels—would not necessitate added construction costs, an assumption CAP admits is probably unrealistic.  If additional detention space were to be constructed, CAP notes that the average per-bed construction cost is $11,900 and approximately 144,000 beds would be needed.

Although CAP gives an estimate for legal processing costs based on current data, the report notes that immigration courts are “ill equipped to serve the current caseload.  It is difficult to fathom how the immigration legal system would handle 8.66 million new adjudications that would come from a deportation campaign.”  (The report assumes that not all deportees would go through the immigration courts; the remainder would “voluntarily depart.”)

The immigration detention and court systems are already strained to the breaking point with their current workload.  CAP notes that “the problems currently plaguing our detention system and immigration courts would be exacerbated in the extreme and would likely precipitate widespread human rights and due process violations” (and, I would add, attendant legal costs defending against resulting legal actions).

There are other costs that would accompany a mass deportation program, some of which CAP alludes to in their report.  CAP reminds us that most undocumented immigrants have lived here for a long time—63 percent for more than 10 years.  They are “intimately integrated into local communities,” and many have U.S.-citizen children.  Seventy-three percent of the children of undocumented immigrants are U.S. citizens.

There are a couple of ways in which these facts may indicate costs that are not calculated and impossible to predict. 

For one, most undocumented immigrants have already resisted leaving for a long time and, as CAP notes, a mass deportation strategy might just mean that “those who intend to remain would burrow in further, taking with them their wages that are now taxed, or forcing them to use more advanced false documents.”

Secondly, what happens to families when one (or more) breadwinners are removed?  U.S. citizen family members who remain will be eligible for safety net benefits, and some are forced to rely on them as the family income slips below the poverty line (discussed inthis blog post).

The reaction of the community is hard to predict. CAP asks, “would immigrant communities organize to help their family members and neighbors?” In the face of a massive effort that would result in the disruption of workplaces, congregations, neighborhoods, schools, and communities, it may well be that efforts to protect the targets of mass deportation will go beyond family members and neighbors.  Will people of faith organize to help their fellow congregants?  Will workers organize to help their co-workers?  Any resistance to a mass deportation program is going to increase its costs.

Any way you look at it, the cost to our government and to our society of mass deportation would be enormous.  Even so, the cost would be dwarfed by the cost to our economy—estimated to be $2.6 trillion over the next 10 years.

The CAP study is certainly worth a read, giving us another reason to ask about mass deportation, “Now, why do we want to do this again?”

Maurice Belanger is the Director of Public Information at the National Immigration Forum and a writer/editor for the Forum's ImmPolitic blog.
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