Over the weekend, President-elect Donald Trump reaffirmed his intention to crack down on undocumented immigrants living in the US.
“What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers … probably 2 million, it could be even 3 million — we are getting them out of our country or we are going to incarcerate,” he said during an interview with “60 Minutes.”
Trump has framed his deportation scheme as a way to restore to US citizens the jobs usurped by immigrants and as a means to secure the southern border, but demographics and recent history suggest that such a crackdown will only exacerbate the misery and instability that have driven the surge of migrants heading to the US in recent years.
Data suggest that the number of unauthorized immigrants who’ve been convicted of crimes in the US is actually far fewer than the 2 million to 3 million number cited by Trump.
So to hit that number would mean going beyond criminal immigrants or immigrants with criminal records to include those who’ve only been charged or who’ve only committed low-level offenses, which Trump transition team members have said they’d do.
Trump has also said he’d roll back Obama’s programs offering temporary legal status to immigrants who entered the country illegally as children.
Such immediate mass deportations would in all likelihood violate due process and appeal rights, and to reach that number of people would mean ensnaring immigrants who are not serious criminals or who have no real ties to the country to which they’d be sent.
Like previous groups of deportees who’ve been sent back to Central America and Mexico, with few roots in their new home and little in the way of support, there won’t be much to prevent those people from slipping back into the stream of migrants who’ve headed to the US in recent years.
“Over a decade ago, the US began sharing some information with its Salvadoran counterparts about the people that it was deporting to El Salvador. However, there were very few economic opportunities or programs to address the needs of the deportees,” Mike Allison, a political science professor at the University of Scranton, told Business Insider.
“There is a bit more emphasis on speaking with deportees today, but there is limited assistance for those deported. There are no jobs,” Allison said. “Many of those deported simply want to return to the US where they might have lived for several years or where their family lives. While they might stay in El Salvador to reconnect with friends and family, many of them try to return to the US rather quickly.”
Such vulnerable people would not only tax the resources of governments in Latin America, particularly in Central America. (Nearly one-third of immigrants in the US in 2015 were from Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala.)
These people would also fall prey to criminal groups — transnational gangs like Barrio 18 or MS-13 — that have turned northern Central America and parts of Mexico into war zones.
This wouldn’t be the first time such a dynamic had taken shape.
In the 1990s, after the end of the civil wars in Central America — particularly the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — US policy changed to expand the number of immigrants subject to deportation and made it harder for them to get relief from deportation.
The consequence of deporting many immigrants — a number of whom were already criminals — to countries emerging from a period of war with weak law enforcement and little economic development was the growth of groups like Barrio 18 and MS-13, both of which have their origins among immigrants in California who were deported.
“Minor street gangs existed during the late 1980s and 1990s in El Salvador. From what I understand, they were just nuisances or kids messing around,” Allison said. “However, the deportations of thousands of young men during the 1990s did transform these gangs into more violent, sophisticated groups.”
“Honduran and Guatemalan gangs were aided by deportations as well as the spread of gang influence from El Salvador,” Allison added, noting that a variety of factors, including weak state institutions, lack of opportunities, and repressive policing strategies, fed a cycle of violence that continues in northern Central America now.
“So, in a way, deportations were extremely important to the emergence and expansion of criminal groups like the MS-13 and Barrio 18,” Allison told Business Insider.
The US’s deportation policy created “an era of expansion for these gangs,” Mike Vigil, the former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, told Business Insider.
“And as a result of that, we have created a disaster in Central America … where these gangs are fighting among each other, creating a massive migration of individuals into the United States,” Vigil added.
The rapid expansion and brutal violence of these gangs and other criminal groups operating in northern Central America have been driving forces for the wave of migrants who’ve headed to the US over the last few years.
US border officials have reported an increase in migrants illegally entering the US this year (though current levels are still a far cry from the numbers apprehended at the border over the last several decades), and most of those people are Central Americans fleeing the conditions they face in their countries.
“In many poor and marginalized communities in all three countries, women and children are victims of extortion, abuse, rape, murder, and gang-related violence,” the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) wrote in a report earlier this year.
“In many of these communities, citizens face explicit threats on their lives for reasons that may include bearing witness to a crime, attempting to leave a gang, or failing to pay an extortion fee or war tax,” the report continued.
The hardline strategy Trump has proposed, unaccompanied by an effort to address the situation in Central America, would do little to improve and likely only worsen the conditions there.
Nor would such a strategy keep people from fleeing those conditions, Maureen Meyer, senior associate for Mexico and migrant rights at WOLA, told Vice.
“If you have people who are willing to cross the U.S. border and the desert at the risk of dying, the thought of trying to deter people doesn’t really fit with reality,” she said.
A mass deportation of millions like Trump says he’ll undertake would furnish Latin American criminal groups with more people to recruit, extort, or abuse.
These criminal groups and gangs already have a presence in the US. (Some, like MS-13, are believed to act as retail-level distributors on US streets for drug traffickers like Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.) They may use recent deportees, convicted criminals or not, to augment their links to communities in the US.
Trump’s intention to send people back to Central America or Mexico would give rise to “a cause-and-effect situation, where it’s going to increase violence,” Vigil, author of of “Metal Coffins: The Blood Alliance Cartel,” told Business Insider.
“And these individuals, coming from the United States, already have a base here,” Vigil added. “They already know individuals here that they can use to funnel drugs … thereby increasing the amount of drugs coming into the United States, the amount of violence coming into the United States.”
The deportation scheme Trump has promised to pursue would be logistically difficult to carry out, given the immense number of people to be rounded up.
And given the time it takes for cases to get through US immigration courts — some states have average wait times of over 1,000 days — it’s unlikely that these removals would move at the pace Trump seems to suggest.
But given the conditions in the areas many of these people will be returned to, as well as the limited resources they will have to support themselves and that local authorities will have to deal with them, such a scheme promises to only reproduce the problem it claims to address.
“Trump, in essence, will deport 2 or 3 million individuals, and probably we will get 5 or 6 million undocumented immigrants coming into the United States,” Vigil said.
“So it’s a strategy that has not been well laid out … and all it’s going to do is cause even more issues than we currently have in the United States.”