Anti-immigration policies might make good television in some quarters of America, but they amount to bad economics everywhere. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has ramped up his tough talk against foreigners. He wants to beef up deportation forces and even halt certain new green cards. The plans are pricey and would require hiring thousands of additional government workers.
Trump argued last week that illegal immigrants cost the United States more than $113 billion a year. His estimate seems high, but still pales in comparison to the cost of the programs he is advocating to fix the problem, which could top $1 trillion, according to an analysis by Breakingviews.
First, there is his plan to deport 11 million illegal immigrants living in the country. It’s still unclear whether Trump is sticking to that vow given he said they were subject to deportation, but also said “the appropriate disposition of those who remain” would be decided later. If he did follow through on his initial vow to force all of them to leave, it would be the most expensive part of his plan.
Immigration-enforcement officials have estimated it costs $12,500 for each person they deport, totaling about $3 billion for the 235,000 people removed in 2015. Deporting 11 million people would be a massive undertaking, requiring more than 80,000 extra detention officers, nearly 315,000 more beds, and an additional 50,000 flights and bus rides, according to the American Action Forum. It estimates that would cost up to $300 billion if done in two years, though it might take as many as 20 years.
The far larger expense is the loss of output that would disappear with those illegal immigrants, some 7 million or so of whom are in the U.S. workforce. Annual production would fall by up to $623 billion if they left the country, according to AAF. Another nearly $30 billion would be lost in federal and local tax revenue paid by those workers, and payouts to the trust funds for Social Security and Medicare, according to studies by the Social Security Administration and other agencies.
On the other hand, allowing those immigrants to stay could provide an additional boost to government revenue since more taxes could be collected from them over time. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2015 that legislation known as the Dream Act, which would have granted legal status to certain illegal immigrants, would have brought in $2.3 billion in additional government revenue – against an estimated $1.1 billion in additional spending for Social Security, student loans and tax credits.
One idea Trump hasn’t backed down from is building a wall along the southern border with Mexico. Trump’s estimates of its cost have varied, though he maintains Mexico would pay for it. Engineering experts estimate the expense of a 2,000-mile wall, which could take at least five years to build, at about $25 billion. Last Wednesday, Trump described the wall as having advanced technology, including above- and below-ground sensors, which would raise the price further.
The New York real-estate tycoon also wants to suspend visas for people in countries with inadequate screening, though he has not outlined criteria for that threshold. Previously, he has said he wants to ban all Muslims, which could cost as much as $18 billion in lost tourism revenue per year. The United States doesn’t track visitors by religion, but visitors from the Middle East alone spent nearly $7 billion in 2014, according to the U.S. National Travel and Tourism Office.
Trump has said he’d abolish a waiver program that allows citizens from mostly European nations to come to the United States without a visa. The U.S. government estimates such travelers spend about $84 billion a year. Trump also wants to add an “ideological certification” to immigration screening to ensure only those who “share our values” are admitted to the country. It is unclear how such a program would work, though the additional vetting would likely cost billions.
Trump’s plans would also affect far more people than the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. The largest potential group comes out of the 1 million people who receive green cards, or permanent-residency status, each year. Trump said he wanted to halt issuing new ones for foreign workers. Including family members, who make up the bulk of permanent residents, the Cato Institute estimated Trump’s plan could affect about 63 percent of green-card holders. He would also severely curb the 85,000 skilled foreign workers who come to the country every year on H-1B visas.
Trump also wants to repeal President Barack Obama’s 2011 executive action granting legal status to certain illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children. The program has about 730,000 registrants. Even programs like visas for cultural exchanges and visiting scholars, which Trump describes as jobs programs for foreign youth, would be shut down, affecting 171,000 people.
A more diverse society arguably produces other benefits that are not easily measured in dollars. But strictly looking at anti-immigration policies purely through their price tags, the numbers don’t make economic sense. Trump’s nativist policies would cost far more than what he says they’d save.