Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos is locked in a van that is stopped by protesters outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility on Feb. 8, in Phoenix. (Rob Schumacher/Arizona Republic via AP)

There are any number of hard-to-understand components to the draft memo that reportedly circulated in the White House, mobilizing 100,000 National Guard members to act as a deportation force for immigrants in the country illegally in 11 southwestern states. But one issue is that the proposal — which the White House says isn’t on the table — targets states that are home to less than half of the estimated undocumented immigrant population.

Pew Research tracks data on that population. People often wonder how accurate numbers can be compiled on a group that almost by definition seeks to avoid notice — but there’s a simple answer. As a Pew demographer explained to me last year, nearly all of those born in Mexico now live in either Mexico or the United States. Figure out the population living in Mexico, the population living legally in the United States and compare that to birth records by year. The difference? Those living in the United States illegally. That total, incidentally, has stayed flat over the past several years of Pew analysis. In fact, for several years after the recession, net migration between the United States and Mexico sent more people south than north.

That draft executive order would have deployed National Guard members through 11 states: The four directly adjoining Mexico and the seven states that connect them to the rest of the continental United States. The effect of sending deputized Guardsmen through the Southwest to deport immigrants raises the specter of an Eisenhower-era effort that Trump once praised: “Operation Wetback.” That effort sent Border Patrol agents first into California and then into Texas to pick out and deport immigrants in the country illegally. Trump never used the name of the operation, for perhaps obvious reasons, but he endorsed the idea and the outcome.

It’s worth noting, though, that the density of the population of immigrants in the country illegally doesn’t mirror the focus of that memo. According to Pew’s analysis of data (the most recent of which is from 2014), slightly less than half of the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants — 5.3 million — live in those 11 states. Only about 900,000 live in the seven states that don’t touch the border.

By contrast, 5.9 million live everywhere else.


The reason for this? As Pew discovered when it analyzed data recently, about 60 percent of immigrants without documentation are living in 20 large urban areas. Certainly there is a large population of immigrants in, for example, California’s Central Valley, working in agriculture. But there are far more living in Los Angeles. This makes sense: More people live in cities, where … more people live.


As a percentage of the overall population in the Central Valley, the density of undocumented immigrants is higher. But it’s not where most undocumented immigrants live.


This necessarily shifts how we look at that draft memo. The memo’s proposal is tied to geography in a way that doesn’t match the distribution of immigrants who live in the country illegally. This may help explain why the administration doesn’t plan to put the proposal into place.

It may also help explain why, in the weeks since the Jan. 25 date on that memo, the focus of immigration raids has been on sweeps that are less geographically focused. It’s not National Guardsmen sweeping through Visalia, Calif.; it’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement arresting immigrants in cities.

In other words, instead of a heavy-handed focus in the Southwest, the administration may have decided on a more deliberate touch everywhere in the country.