Can enforcing the law be wrong?

Column by John Muenzberg, lecturer of philosophy

In 1931, police officers entered the family home of Ignacio Pina, then six years old. The police rounded up the family and held them until they could be deported back to Mexico. The problem was that Ignacio and his siblings were U.S. citizens with U.S. birth certificates. Even though those birth certificates were in the house, the arresting officers refused to let them grab any belongings. Since the U.S. government was not required to present evidence of their foreign status, they deported the family to a country the children had never lived in.

Ignacio Pina spent 16 years trying to return to the U.S. He was not alone. During the 1930s the U.S. “repatriated” up to 400,000 people of Mexican descent. The major injustice was that a large percentage of these people were actually U.S. citizens. At the time, U.S. immigration laws restricted immigration of non-whites. As a result, few people actually considered these Mexican-Americans to be full citizens, no matter what documents they may have had.

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised to round up all people who are living in the U.S. without proper legal status. A critical evaluation of that idea demonstrates it is not a reasonable solution. President Trump is again discussing strategies to begin deporting people, although his new plans are not finalized.

The first problem with deporting all undocumented people is that the project would be much more massive than many people understand. There are an estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally. George W. Bush deported about 250,000 people per year. If Trump continues to deport 250,000 per year it will take 44 years to deport everyone that is here now. If Trump wishes to deport 11 million people before the 2020 election, he will need to deport 3 million per year. That is about seven times more than 2013, when Barack Obama deported a record-setting 435,498 people.

That is one reason Obama instructed The Department of Homeland Security to focus deportation efforts on violent criminals. This is also why politicians who have thought critically about this issue offer paths to citizenship, derided by some as “amnesty.” There is no way to effectively and efficiently deport that many undocumented people.

Since they are undocumented, it is difficult to know who they are or where they live. The only way we could find them would be for the U.S. government to round up 30-40 million people who look “foreign” and force them prove their citizenship. If we actually do this legally, they must all be given a hearing to allow them to prove who they are, which takes time and requires money and personnel.

But proving citizenship is not as easy as it sounds. For example, a driver’s license is not considered proof of citizenship. Do you keep your birth certificate with you? Of course you can send for a copy, but Homeland Security will hold you in detention for the 2-3 weeks it may take for it to arrive. This means the U.S. will need to build detention camps for the 2-3 million people they will have to detain at any one time. Imagine detaining 2 million citizens to find 200,000 immigrants. Legally and politically, it cannot be done.

And even with hearings and evidence, people will fall through the cracks. It is estimated that in 2010, 4,000 U.S. citizens were incorrectly deported. If you compare to the numbers above, that is about 10 percent of all deportations. It is illegal to deport a U.S. citizen. Under a plan of mass deportations this illegal activity would be widespread.

“Deporting All Illegals” is a nice campaign slogan. Modest and targeted methods, such as deporting violent offenders, is a more reasonable, legal and moral solution.