The prospect of mass deportations

Immigration was a pressing issue in the 2012 election, and it is clearly an equally serious one for 2016, because everyone has an opinion, especially Republicans, who seem to feel especially strongly on the subject. Republicans are advocating an isolationist and nationalist version of the United States, a model that could have dangerous foreign policy implications in the future if pushes to seal ourselves off from the rest of the world succeed. At the core of these policy proposals lies the insistence on pushing Central and South Americans across the border regardless as to their immigration status, history, or origins: ‘Mexicans are Mexicans,’ as people say, apparently missing the fact that Central and South America include much, much more than Mexico (which is actually part of North America anyway).

This is obviously a huge human rights violation. Even if one believed that all undocumented immigrants should be deported and ordered to pursue reentry via legal means, that means that around 11 million people would be forcibly removed from the country. Many undocumented immigrants labour in the service and agricultural sectors — which means that we could face a legitimate shortage in farm labour and service workers, despite claims about the ‘theft’ of ‘American’ jobs. Some families would also be divided as those who are citizens would be forced to choose between remaining behind or leaving the country as well.

As it is, the United States regularly deports or detains legal citizens and residents, including people born in the United States who have never been outside the country, sometimes not even speaking any languages beyond English. In the case of documented and undocumented people alike, when people aren’t shoved into inhumane detention facilities, they may be deported back to poverty, violence, and horrific conditions. Some immigrants arrive in the U.S. to escape personal risks as well, as for example among the LGBQT immigrant community, and forcing them to their nations of origin could condemn them to death.

Mitt Romney advocated for ‘self-deportation,’ while Donald Trump has suggested that we simply get rid of the lot of them, expulsing all Central and South Americans along with Mexican residents from the United States. It’s a staggerly bigoted claim, but it’s one that more than a few conservatives in the United States support. The suggestion also isn’t an entirely hypothetical one, for those on the left who like to reassure themselves with the notion that while Trump’s bluster is abhorrent, it could never truly come to pass.

During the Depression, some two million Mexican-Americans were deported from the United States on the grounds that they were taking up precious jobs that should rightfully be occupied by (white) US residents. At least one million of them were legal United States citizens with detailed documentation as to their immigration status, but it didn’t matter to authorities — a Mexican is a Mexican. People were loaded up on trains and sent back across the border, or ‘encouraged’ to deport with a train ticket and a shove, thus pushing an influx of people over the border and into communities that weren’t prepared for the flood of new residents.

People were ripped apart from their homes and families, and in some cases, as now, were sent ‘home’ to places they’d never been and had no connection to. People born and raised in the United States, including those with families who had been in the country for generations, found themselves dumped in communities where they didn’t fit in, didn’t speak Spanish, and struggled to survive. Some eventually made their way back into the United States when the anti-immigrant hostility began to (temporarily) fade, but others never returned, leaving their lives behind as they rebuilt new ones.

The focus at the time was on Mexican-Americans, who still remain the bogeyman of those who like to terrify people in the US with the evil spectre of immigration, but modern-day mass deportation proposals would absolutely include people from other parts of the Americas as well. Given that many conservatives appear incapable of distinguishing between people of different Central and South American nations, there’s no particular reason they’d stop with Mexican-Americans on this round.

It might seem impossible to imagine such a thing actually happening, but it’s not a theoretical. It happened in the past and it could happen again, and the framework for large deportations is in place. It would be just as easy to load buses and aircraft — which we already do, albeit on a lesser scale — as it was to load trains in the 1930s and 1940s, and likely trains would be pressed into service as well. Attempts at eradicating every single immigrant would fail, of course, but mass deportations would still have a profound effect on immigrant communities across the country.

Immigrant culture in the United States is sprawling, complex, vibrant. Forced removal of millions of people would gut these communities, destroy the support systems immigrants have built with each other, and ruin communities. It’s not just a cynical concern — what happens when we take a large chunk of the labour force out of commission? — but a cultural one. We stand to lose a great deal if we expel immigrants in large numbers, and that’s what lots of conservatives want.

Should a conservative take the presidency, the United States will be facing down considerable policy regressions, including reversals of executive orders and pushes for a variety of conservative legislation. Should an extremist occupy the Oval Office, we might be looking at the very real presentation of a proposal for shoving immigrants out of the United States, and that is a dire prospect.

Image: Stop Deportation, Niccolò Caranti, Flickr