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Former President Donald Trump has placed at the center of his campaign a plan to deport more than 12 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. today.

And while many of Trump’s other policy preferences — like a second round of corporate tax cuts — would require congressional approval, Trump and his advisers are adamant that he can institute what he has called “the largest domestic deportation operation in history” using the authorities already available to any president.

Now read: Trump tax cut 2.0: Would slashing the corporate rate again boost stocks?

“Any activists who doubt President Trump’s resolve in the slightest are making a drastic error: Trump will unleash the vast arsenal of federal powers to implement the most spectacular migration crackdown,” said Trump immigration adviser Stephen Miller in an November interview with the New York Times. “The immigration legal activists won’t know what’s happening.”

Such a program may prove popular with a segment of the U.S. electorate: A recent Gallup poll showed 55% of Americans, a record high, saying illegal immigration poses a “critical threat to the vital interests of the United States.”

But Trump’s plan could prove devastating to industries that rely on migrant labor to produce products and services. Those include agriculture
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leisure and hospitality
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and construction
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where undocumented workers contribute roughly 10% of those industries’ total output, according to Queens College labor economist Francesc Ortega, who has published numerous papers on the economics of immigration.

”In a scenario where undocumented workers were vanished from the workforce, those would be the sectors that face a really big labor crunch,” he told MarketWatch.

Both Trump and President Joe Biden on Thursday delivered remarks and met with local leaders near the southern U.S. border in Texas, underscoring the importance of the issue for both campaigns.

Trump sought to blame the president for a record surge of migrants across the southern border, calling it “a Joe Biden invasion,” while Biden blamed Trump for encouraging congressional Republicans to kill a bipartisan agreement that would have funded border security and enabled officials to process asylum claims more quickly.

Steven Camarota, the director of research at the anti-immigration think tank Center for Immigration Studies, estimates that there are roughly nine million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. labor force, and that it would be possible to deport roughly one million per year if current law were enforced to the fullest extent.

He argued in an interview that these workers could be replaced by the more than seven million working-age men who are legally in the country but not in the labor force.

To attract those workers to fill tough jobs currently filled by unauthorized immigrants would “take higher wages, better working conditions and employers being more patient with people who haven’t worked in a while.”

The historically low unemployment rate in the U.S. does mask the decades-long trend of working-age men leaving the labor force, with the male labor-force participation rate falling from a high of 98% in 1954 to 89% today, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Ortega said that history doesn’t support the view that undocumented workers can easily be replaced by those in the country legally. There is little historical evidence of how a deportation program like the one contemplated by the Trump campaign would impact an economy, he said, because nothing on that scale has been attempted in a modern developed country.

He pointed to one incident in U.S. history that could shed some light on the potential effects of the Trump plan: the end of the so-called Bracero Agreements between the U.S. and Mexico in 1964.

These deals with the Mexican government authorized a guest-worker program, launched in 1942, that helped U.S. farm businesses deal with labor shortages during World War II. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration ended the agreements in an effort to boost the wages of native-born workers.

Ortega pointed to a 2018 study by economists Michael Clemens, Ethan Lewis and Hannah Postel that studied the effects of the program’s end, which led to the exclusion of half a million workers in a short span of time and was, they write, “one of the largest-ever policy experiments to improve the labor market for domestic workers in a targeted sector by reducing the size of the workforce.”

Employers didn’t raise wages or hire more native-born workers to replace migrant workers, the economists found. Instead, they substituted labor with technology like harvesting machines and switched the types of crops grown to those that require less labor to produce.

“This suggests that for the jobs undocumented workers do, employers will be hard-pressed to find substitutes for them,” Ortega said.

Businesses in sectors that rely on migrant labor may take hope in the idea that Trump’s immigration proposals are far more severe than the actions he might take as president. Despite anti-immigrant rhetoric being at the center of his 2016 run for the presidency, Trump’s administration actually deported fewer people in its four years than former President Barack Obama did in either of his terms.

The Trump campaign didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, but his former advisers have said in interviews that a second Trump administration would roll out many new tactics for its planned deportation program, including deputizing National Guard troops and local police officers to carry out sweeping workplace raids.

Though the campaign has argued these moves are legal, it admits that these new tactics will likely be challenged in court.

Even if Trump is able to drastically ramp up deportations through disruptive workplace raids, it’s not clear that such maneuvers will stop the historic flow of migrants over the U.S. border, who are fleeing economic and social conditions at home.

Voluminous economic research and interviews with migrants show that the main driver of migration is economic and social conditions in emigrants’ home countries, and there is a strong correlation between the strength of the U.S. labor market and the number of illegal border crossings.

These factors, along with the fact that America’s massive southern land border cannot be comprehensively policed, mean that migration can’t be stopped, only managed, said Ortega, the Queens College labor economist.

“The impact of mass deportation will be more social than economic,” he said. “A substantial portion of the undocumented population are part of families with U.S. citizens, and that means deporting breadwinners of families with U.S.-citizen children. And that’s not great for prospects of those children.”


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