Since President Trump’s election, immigrants with undocumented family members have been on high alert.
They are right to be nervous. Trump campaigned on the construction of a “big, beautiful” wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and called for a “deportation force” to round up undocumented immigrants. On Jan. 25, only days after taking office, Trump issued two executive orders: one that authorized the construction of the wall, and a second that directed law enforcement agencies to deport all “removable aliens.” And since the inauguration, the news and social media have been rife with stories of otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants being detained and deported.
Trump is not alone in calling for deportation. In fact, critics often labeled President Barack Obama the “Deporter in Chief,” and Trump himself once admiringly referred to past deportation drives during the 1950s. Indeed, throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, the U.S. has turned again and again to deportation as a way to solve the persistent problem of undocumented immigration.
Yet these recurring mass deportation campaigns have not only created a host of problems for immigrants and their children, many of whom are U.S. citizens, they have also failed to stem the tide of undocumented immigrants.
Mass deportation has long been ineffective policy. Consider the “repatriation drives” that occurred during the Great Depression. As the stock markets crashed and unemployment began to rise, native-born U.S. citizens blamed Mexican immigrants for their economic woes, and accused them of siphoning public welfare from more deserving white citizens. Across the country, local and federal officials launched raids and campaigns to send these immigrants back to Mexico.
In cities and towns across the United States, Mexican workers — many of whom had arrived legally in the United States, and many with families and U.S.-born children — were pressured (and in some cases, forced) to return to their homeland. The repatriation campaigns expelled hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and continued throughout the 1930s, in what historian Francisco Balderrama has labeled a “decade of betrayal.” In some cases, families were separated permanently.
Back in Mexico, the repatriates initially received a warm welcome, as the Mexican public responded to them with sympathy. In towns and states along Mexico’s northern border, individuals, organizations, and bureaucrats worked together to provide relief for the returning families, organizing charitable events and taking up collections of food, funds and other necessities.
Mexican political elites were no less sympathetic, developing grandiose plans for the returning migrants. Believing that the repatriates would be perfectly suited to farming unsettled parts of the Mexican countryside, some politicians granted repatriates fallow lands in remote, underpopulated places in rural Sonora, Guerrero and Oaxaca, to encourage them to form agrarian colonies.
Almost without exception, the colonies were an utter failure. Without adequate funding, planning, and tools — and far from the social networks of their home towns — the repatriates had little incentive to tackle the nearly impossible work of revitalizing the Mexican countryside.
In the end, many repatriates found life back home in Mexico during the 1930s extremely difficult. Mexican government officials lacked the ability to address the deep structural problems that had caused migration in the first place, and could barely meet the immediate needs of the returnees.
It is no wonder, then, that as soon as the U.S. economy recovered and the demand for Mexican migrant labor picked up, quite a few repatriates simply returned to the United States. Between 1942-1964, many of the deportees from the repatriation drive returned to the United States as part of the Bracero Program, a series of bilateral agreements between the U.S. and Mexico that brought several million Mexican guest workers to the United States. If they couldn’t get work as braceros, many returned without legal papers, and found work anyway.
Today’s undocumented immigrants are, of course, different from the Mexicans who lived through the repatriation drives of the 1930s. Yet their experiences shed light on the ineffectiveness of deportation campaigns.
First, no deportation drive can work unless the economic and political causes of migration are addressed. If today’s undocumented Central American or Mexican immigrants are deported, many will find perilous and penurious conditions in their homelands, just as Mexicans did after the repatriations of the 1930s. In Mexico, the Peña Nieto government has trumpeted new programs to help returning deportees, but the country’s persistent violence and underemployment suggest that such initiatives will do little to address the systemic conditions that push migrants to go to the United States.
Second, deportation drives are inherently ineffective because they fail to address another, equally important cause of undocumented migration: a U.S. labor market that persistently employs undocumented immigrants, with minimal (if any) punishment for employers who break the law. (This inconsistent reality is perhaps best illustrated by a well-known political cartoon in which Uncle Sam straddles the border while holding a “Keep Out” sign, while a figure below him — representing employers — holds a “Help Wanted” sign.) Just as during the 1930s and 1940s, undocumented immigrants will return to the United States if they can find jobs here — and employers will keep hiring them if they face no consequences for doing so.
Finally, deportation drives are ineffective because so many undocumented immigrants have children who are U.S. citizens. This means that they — like the repatriates during the 1930s — have ties to the United States that cannot be broken. Their children — whether they remain in the United States without their parents or accompany their parents to their home countries — will remain U.S. citizens with the right to return here legally. As Balderrama and others have pointed out, many of the children of the 1930s repatriates were harmed and traumatized by their families’ experiences, and that trauma is repeating itself, at a cost to U.S. society.
If deportation is so ineffective and counterproductive, then why have policymakers returned to the policy again and again? Because its purpose is not to solve the problem of undocumented immigration, but rather to turn immigrants into a convenient scapegoat when the economy goes sour. Focusing on undocumented immigrants gives politicians a quick fix and an easy out, while failing to address the larger, more complicated problems that spur their immigration.
Many on the left and the right can agree that undocumented immigration is not good for anyone — but mass deportation has yet to successfully solve the problem, and history tells us that it probably never will. Rather, policymakers on both sides of the aisle must find a way to address the deeper issues — poverty and instability in the sending countries, and economic dependence on undocumented migrants in the U.S. — that fuel undocumented immigration in the first place.