In 2006, when I first began researching deportations, George W. Bush was president and quietly building a deportation machine in the Department of Homeland Security. Outside of small activist circles, few Americans knew that deportations had been rising since 1996 due to legislation signed by President Bill Clinton. Nor could anyone then have imagined that the next president would be a Democrat, the son of a Kenyan immigrant, and would make Bush look like a piker when it came to record-high deportations. Nor, for that matter, would anyone have dreamed that deportation would become a—possibly the—signature issue of the 2016 presidential campaign.
And yet, all of this and more has come to pass in a blistering season of demagoguery, nativism, and outright racism. As again would have been unimaginable a mere decade ago, Republican front-runners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have both promised to deport every last one of the estimated 11 million undocumented migrants in the United States, the whole lot of them, while as a bonus banning Muslims from the country. Trump gave his particular proposals a special twist by labeling Mexicans coming across the border as “rapists,” and immigrants more generally as “snakes.”
On the issue of deportations, the Republican presidential hopefuls differ in only one tiny way: Trump claims he will allow the “really good” immigrants to return, while Cruz wants to get rid of every last undocumented immigrant permanently.
To put all this in perspective, here’s the crucial thing you need to understand: With such “proposals,” we have been plunged into a grim fantasyland. You can be guaranteed that neither of these men has spent a serious moment considering what it might really mean to deport those 11 million actual human beings. Behind such a program there can be no real plan, because it would prove both unaffordable and unworkable (leaving aside its utter inhumanity). Undoubtedly, neither Trump nor Cruz cares about the details of all this, since the point is to arouse deep fears of loss and visceral betrayal in the white working-class voters they want to attract. But it’s worth taking their proposals seriously enough to ask a relatively straightforward question: Is it feasible to deport 11 million people?