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Opinion Trump’s mass deportations have arrived. But will Republicans pay for them?

Spicer explained new Department of Homeland Security memos released on Feb. 21, as "empowering DHS to carry out the immigration laws currently on the books." (Video: Reuters)

The Department of Homeland Security has finally released a series of memos detailing how President Trump’s mass deportations will be implemented. As expected, they scrap most of the enforcement priorities put in place under President Barack Obama, and vastly expand the pool of undocumented immigrants who will now be targeted for deportation.

Which raises a question: Will congressional Republicans appropriate the money that this will cost?

The new DHS memos represent a massive change in the way the deportation machinery will now function. Under Obama’s DHS, the removal of low-level offenders and longtime residents with ties to communities was deprioritized, so limited enforcement resources could be focused on serious criminals and recent border-crossers. Now that is no longer the case, as Dara Lind explains:

Under the Obama administration, this meant “prioritizing” ever-more-narrow categories of unauthorized immigrants for deportation; by the end of the Obama administration, unauthorized immigrants living in the US who hadn’t been convicted of crimes were at pretty low risk of being deported.
That era is over. Under President Trump, the massive immigration enforcement “machine” of the US will now have nearly free rein to arrest, detain, and deport unauthorized immigrants wherever it finds them.

Read Lind’s piece for more details on the various ways in which the new regime will seek to maximize the deportations of these lower-level offenders. But one of the most important includes tripling the number of removal agents at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, by adding 10,000 agents.

How enforcing Trump’s immigration actions could hurt public safety

Today I spoke about the implications of this with John Sandweg, who for a time under Obama was acting director of ICE and acting general counsel of DHS.

Sandweg argues that vastly expanding the pool of targets for deportation is mostly about driving up the numbers of people being deported — by going after the lower-level offenders and longtime residents, or what he calls the “low-hanging fruit.” But that, he says, would divert resources away from going after the serious criminals and recent border-crossers.

“A lot of this is designed to put up numbers — but in doing so, you diminish the impact on public safety,” Sandweg says, adding that the new policies will “disproportionately impact non-criminals.”

Now, the way that Trump’s DHS will deal with this is by increasing the number of ICE agents — hence the tripling of them. But that is going to cost money. Sandweg estimates this could cost as much as $1 billion to $2 billion for the first year — because of hiring, training, equipment, and offices. Politico recently put the estimate even higher, at nearly $4 billion per year.

“Are Republicans going to give them the money?” Sandweg asks. “It’s on Congress now to fund this.” And Congress is already going to have to appropriate money to pay for Trump’s border wall.

What’s more, Sandweg doubts that even these increased expenditures would secure results that are worth that additional money. That’s because in the end, a large chunk of these additional appropriations might end up getting spent on removing low-level offenders. “Getting 10,000 new agents is not going to get you one-for-one bang for the buck,” Sandweg says.

Of course, this would drive up the number of deportations. Which, at bottom, seems to be the real goal of the policy.

I’ve argued before that targeting low level offenders who have been here a long time for deportation is freighted with moral complications. Many came here to better their lives and those of their families in ways that are in sync with American history and values. Many have since developed longtime ties to communities and are currently contributing to American life. Deporting many of them will rupture families and communities. Yes, they broke the law, and the conservative argument that allowing them to remain rewards lawbreaking must be taken seriously. But they are more than mere lawbreakers — or, arguably, they have become more than mere lawbreakers — and these changing circumstances, too, deserve to be taken seriously in deciding what constitutes the most just response.

What’s more, it needs to be asked whether vastly stepping up deportations makes sense as policy — is this really in the interests of the United States? The core practical dimensions of the Trump administration’s response make it look highly questionable in those terms, too.

Congressional Republicans, do your job or get out of the way

On this score, you might be tempted to dismiss what Sandweg says, since he worked for an administration with very different immigration priorities. But regardless, the line of questions he has articulated provides a way to evaluate Trump’s deportation regime going forward: Will the increased focus on low-level offenders divert resources from the focus on serious criminals? Will that make us less safe? How much more will it cost to boost our enforcement resources to the point where deporting lower-level offenders does not divert needed resources from serious criminals? Does that expanded expenditure make practical sense? Is the payoff really worth it?

Over the long haul, it will be worth watching to see whether Republicans actually do appropriate the funds necessary to dramatically expand deportations. It also remains to be seen whether they’ll have the stomach for this if a great deal of press attention focuses on the plight of low-level offenders who are now under serious threat of deportation.

One last point: The current memos do not rescind Obama’s executive action protecting “dreamers” from deportation and awarding them work permits, under the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for DHS, tells me that for the foreseeable future, work permits will continue to be given out to DACA recipients. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services “will continue to process DACA benefits as usual,” Christensen says.

So Tuesday’s outcome is not a total victory for the immigration hard-liners.