Trump’s Immigration Policies

A Path To Resistance

By Dr. Javier Hidalgo (University of Richmond)

January 15, 2017         Picture: Darren Otnitz/Reuters.

This article is part of The Critique’s January/February 2017 Issue “Stick It To The Man: A Year Of Anglo-American Populist Revolt Against A Changing Culture & An Obtuse Political Establishment.”

Donald Trump campaigned on a pledge to restrict immigration. In the speech that announced his presidential bid, Trump said that he plans to build a wall at the Mexico-United States border and make Mexico pay for it. He has repeatedly declared that his administration will deport all migrants who live in the country without official authorization.[1] banning Muslim immigrationthe “Muslim ban” later turned into a plan to limit immigration from countries that are prone to terrorism). According to Trump’s position paper on immigration, his administration will defund “sanctuary cities”, triple the number of immigration officers, and increase penalties on unauthorized migration.[2]

Will Trump enact his restrictive immigration policies? It is hard to say. After the election, Trump tempered his stance on immigration and remarked that he would first deport immigrants with criminal records. How many people are in this group? Trump said: “probably two million, it could even be three million.”[3] This is a substantial numerical change from his earlier claims that he would aim to deport all eleven million unauthorized migrants in the country.

Maybe the Trump administration will surprise us. Trump supported a path to citizenship for unauthorized migrants in the past.[4] This policy is popular even with people who voted for Trump. A majority of Republicans endorse regularization and reject the mass deportation of long-term residents.[5] Trump’s rhetoric and reputation for taking a hardline position on immigration might give him the political cover to push forward a regularization program for unauthorized migrants.

But it is more likely that Trump will implement restrictive immigration policies. My prediction is that the Trump administration will rescind the executive orders that protect some unauthorized migrants from deportation, deport these migrants with greater frequency, and reduce the number of refugees that the United States admits. Although these policies would be bad news for immigrants, let’s keep things in perspective. Trump’s immigration policies are restrictive. Yet they don’t constitute a radical departure from the status quo. The status quo is already extremely restrictive.

Trump’s proposal to deport migrants with criminal records is a continuation of the Obama administration’s policies. The government deported over two and half million migrants under Obama, more than any other administration in history.[6] Trump promises to build a wall along the Mexico-United States border. But there is already a wall along much of the border.[7] Senator Hillary Clinton voted in favor of building it.[8]

“Trump’s immigration policies are restrictive. Yet they don’t constitute a radical departure from the status quo.”

Furthermore, Trump’s policies confront important obstacles. Consider his proposal to deport two to three million immigrants with criminal records. Here is a problem with this proposal: there are not enough immigrants who qualify. Probably fewer than one million immigrants have criminal records (it is worth noting that only a small fraction of these are violent criminals).[9]

To deport two or three million people, government officials would need to remove mostly non-criminals. This is hard to do. Immigrants in the interior of the country have rights to due process. They can dispute their deportations in court and immigration proceedings take over two years to complete on average.[10] Public opinion is a problem. Some Americans might like the idea of deporting immigrants in the abstract, but they don’t like the idea of deporting particular immigrants, especially when they lack criminal records and are integrated into communities. Public opinion is actually more favorable to immigration now than it has been for decades.[11] Legislators respond to public opinion by pressuring immigration agencies to refrain from deporting migrants in their jurisdictions.[12]

Let’s put these practicalities aside and assume that Trump can and will do much of what he promised. What should we think about Trump’s proposed policies? Trump’s proposals are terrible.[13] You don’t need to be a starry-eyed cosmopolitan to accept this conclusion. Even nationalists should reject Trump’s policies. It is wrong to harm people without a strong justification. Trump’s proposals would harm immigrants and American citizens. There are no good reasons for doing these things.

Let’s start with a policy of mass deportation. Most unauthorized migrants in the United States have lived in the country for more than ten years.[14] A substantial fraction of these people have lived in the United States since they were children. They have settled and established deep ties in America. Deportation would damage immigrants’ interests in living with their families, satisfying their basic needs, and escaping bad conditions in their countries of origin.

Trump says that he will stop admitting Syrian refugees and deport those who have already arrived. The United States already admits relatively few refugees. That is, the United States accepts fewer refugees than other rich democracies relative to the size of its population.[15] The United States has taken in twelve thousand refugees from Syria. This is a drop in the bucket—there are about five million Syrian refugees.[16] If we take Trump at his word, his administration will make things worse. He may prevent thousands of refugees from escaping threats to their lives and liberties.

Trump’s policies would set back the urgent interests of migrants and refugees and this is a reason to think that his policies are unjust. But Trump claims that the interests of foreigners should have little weight in immigration policy. In a major speech, Trump said: “there is only one core issue in the immigration debate and it is this: the well-being of the American people. Nothing even comes a close second.”[17] On his view, the interests of American citizens ought to have strict priority over those of foreigners.

Yet it is sometimes wrong to prioritize the interests of American citizens. Consider the following case. Many Americans are dying of kidney failure. Not enough people donate their kidneys. Suppose that we could alleviate this shortage by rounding up unauthorized migrants, extracting their kidneys, and transplanting them into American citizens who need kidneys. Let’s assume that this policy would benefit American citizens on net. It might even save the lives of many Americans. If the well-being of the American people really comes first, then the United States should adopt this policy. Nonetheless, morally decent people would react to this proposal with horror. While this is an extreme case, the point generalizes to less dramatic cases. It can be wrong to harm foreigners even when this benefits Americans. In other words, it is false that Americans always come first.

Suppose though that you accept Trump’s view that American citizens should have priority over foreigners. There is still an objection to Trump’s proposals: Trump’s proposals would harm Americans. For example, unauthorized migrants often have family members, such as their children, who are American citizens. According to one estimate, over four million American citizens have a parent who is an unauthorized migrant.[18] Mass deportation would break up American families.

Sometimes policies that cause harm or violate rights are justified because they have sufficiently large benefits. Maybe Trump’s policies would have important benefits that outweigh their costs. Trump and his supporters cite the economic costs of immigration to American workers in defending restrictive immigration policies. They think that immigration lowers wages and increases unemployment among native workers. So, they conclude that more immigration restrictions will benefit native citizens.

But many economists reject the view that immigration damages the economic prospects of Americans. Immigrant workers and native citizens are not perfect substitutes because they have different skills and attributes. For instance, most immigrants speak English less well than native citizens, and this influences their ability to compete with citizens. Immigrants tend to have a comparative advantage in manual labor, while native citizens have a comparative advantage in jobs that require communication skills. If immigrants and citizens are not perfectly substitutable, then immigrants may fail to significantly affect the wages of citizens. And this is what a large literature in economics has found. Immigration has few negative effects on the wages of native citizens.[19]

Immigration benefits most Americans. For one thing, immigration can increase wages. This happens because immigration promotes specialization and brings about a more efficient division of labor. Immigration also generates product diversity, which benefits consumers.[20]

Look at it this way: In 1910, the United States had a population of 92 million people. The United States was a worse place to live then. The average per capita income of Americans was about $5,000 and life was worse in many other ways. The population of the United States in 2010 was 309 million and the average per capita income was about $30,500.[21] Population growth facilitated greater prosperity or, at least, population growth is consistent with this prosperity. The same point applies to immigration.

Granted, some economists, such as Harvard’s George Borjas, are skeptical about the benefits of immigration. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that immigration does indeed make Americans worse off. It does not follow from this that immigration restrictions make Americans better off. Immigration enforcement is costly. The government spends about $15 to $18 billion every year on immigration enforcement. According to one estimate, Trump’s proposals to deport all unauthorized migrants would cost between $400 and $600 billion dollars.[22]

Moreover, interest groups spend money trying to capture the resources spent on immigration enforcement. In other words, immigration restrictions also have “rent-seeking” costs because citizens lobby to influence immigration and divert resources for their own benefit. The resources that go into rent-seeking could be put to more productive uses. The economist Benjamin Powell estimates that, once we factor in these rent-seeking costs of immigration laws, the costs of immigration restrictions likely outweighs the benefits of these restrictions on even the most optimistic assumptions.[23]

Perhaps these claims about economics are beside the point. Maybe the real costs of immigration are cultural and social in nature. Social scientists find that homogenous communities react strongly against ethnic diversity.[24] Parts of America that are mostly white are becoming more diverse. Immigration brings about ethnic diversity. So, the members of these communities oppose immigration. In contrast, the residents of already diverse communities, such as large cities, are used to ethnic diversity and tend to be more supportive of immigration. These areas overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton.[25]

A defender of Trump’s immigration policies might argue that immigration restrictions are justified in order to protect American communities from unwanted demographic and cultural shifts. The problem with this argument is that there is nothing special about immigration. Cultures and demographics can change for other reasons too.

Consider differential birth rates. Suppose that Mexican Americans have more children than other groups, and that these differential rates of reproduction cause demographic shifts over time. Some Americans may dislike this change. But the government shouldn’t do anything about it.

Or consider domestic freedom of movement. Millions of black citizens immigrated from the South to the North during the twentieth century. This “Great Migration” altered the ethnic composition of communities in the North, in some cases dramatically. Yet it is false that the government should have stopped the migration of black citizens in order to protect Northern communities from demographic change. But, if it is wrong for government officials to shield communities from change in these ways, then why is it permissible for the government to protect communities from change through immigration restrictions?

Trump’s position paper on immigration says: “Mexico’s leaders have been taking advantage of the United States by using illegal immigration to export the crime and poverty in their own country.” Trump suggests that a large number of illegal immigrants from Mexico are rapists. Many Americans support immigration restrictions because they think that immigration increases crime. Are they right?

I won’t go into great detail here, but reality is again different from perception. A large body of evidence indicates that immigration does not increase crime and that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than American citizens.[26] Cities and towns with larger populations of immigrants are safer than places with fewer immigrants. Even if immigration did increase crime, greater enforcement of immigration law may not be the answer. A federal program (“Secure Communities”) that deported migrants who were arrested for a crime failed to reduce crime rates in the past.[27]

Finally, let’s consider terrorism. Trump supports a ban on Muslim immigration and the “extreme vetting” of refugees in order to reduce terrorism. But there is scant evidence that these policies would do anything to reduce terrorism. For one thing, refugees already undergo extensive vetting. Another problem is that hardly any immigrants are terrorists. The policy analyst Alex Nowrasteh estimates that the chance that an American will be murdered in a terrorist attack by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.[28] Americans should fear falling furniture and drowning in their bathtubs more than they fear refugees.

Some refugees are dangerous. After all, any sizable group will contain a few violent individuals. But it seems unjust to exclude and deport entire groups because a small number of their members are dangerous. Here is an analogy. In many cities, violent crime is concentrated in certain neighborhoods. Suppose that the residents of certain neighborhoods of a city are relatively likely to commit violent crimes, although still only a tiny percentage of residents are actually violent. Imagine that the government officials could better protect people from violence by rounding up and incarcerating all the residents of these neighborhoods. This policy would be unjust because it is wrong to punish the many for the sins of the few. Yet this in effect is what Trump’s immigration policies will do.

“Americans should fear falling furniture and drowning in their bathtubs more than they fear refugees.”

Let me sum up. It is wrong to restrict the entry of refugees and deport long-term unauthorized residents without a strong justification. It might be permissible to implement these policies if they produced large benefits. But there is almost no evidence that Trump’s policies would have good effects.[29] Trump’s policy proposals are therefore unjust.

However, the blame for Trump’s objectionable policies does not only lie with the president-elect. American voters bear responsibility too. Voters are biased against immigration and have false beliefs about it. They overestimate the negative effects of immigration and underestimate its benefits. As a result, they have elected a man whose immigration proposals are premised on innumeracy and xenophobia.

“It is wrong to punish the many for the sins of the few. Yet this in effect is what Trump’s immigration policies will do.”

You may agree that Trump’s immigration policies are unjust. But you might feel helpless to do anything about it. I confess that this is often what I feel. Here though is something you can do: you can prepare yourself to resist injustice if given the opportunity, and support those who do resist. Determined resistance to unjust laws can blunt their harmful effects.

Bystanders must resist Trump’s policies. At least, we are obligated to avoid complicity in them. Take sanctuary cities. The governments of Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, generally refuse to turn over unauthorized migrants to immigration agencies. They should continue to do so. This resistance could prove to be costly. Trump says that he will deny federal funds to sanctuary cities. Cities should resist anyway. Sometimes we are required to refrain from participating in injustice even though this costs us dearly.

Even more important than the decisions of mayors are the cumulative actions of ordinary people. The political scientist James Scott describes how many individual acts of insubordination can have powerful effects. Scott’s examples are draft dodging, sabotage, and hunting on the king’s lands. Scott calls these actions “everyday forms of resistance.” He writes:

“Multiplied many thousandfold, such petty acts of refusal may, in the end, make an utter shambles of the plans dreamed up by generals and heads of state. Such petty acts of insubordination typically make no headlines. But just as millions of anthozoan polys create, willy-nilly, a coral reef, so do thousands upon thousands of acts of insubordination and evasion create an economic or political barrier reef of their own.”[30]

Scott contends that “[q]uiet, unassuming, quotidian insubordination” undermined systems of oppression, such as Jim Crow, and helped end unjust wars. Everyday forms of resistance can partially defeat Trump’s immigration policies and other unjust immigration laws that are already in place. Unauthorized migrants are not passive victims. They can and should resist immigration law by evading detection and subverting the law when possible. Immigration law forces citizens to be complicit in upholding immigration restrictions. For instance, the law forbids employers from hiring unauthorized migrants and, in some cases, landlords from renting to them. Citizens should resist complicity by disregarding these laws whenever feasible. State employees can play a role too. Police officers, prosecutors, judges, and other public officials sometimes have considerable discretion about when to enforce the law. They should use this discretion to refuse to apply immigration law or drag their feet when doing so.

I don’t know if many citizens will resist Trump’s immigration policies. But even isolated acts of disobedience can make a big difference to individual immigrants. If you get a chance to frustrate the unjust deportation and exclusion of immigrants, you should take it.

Footnotes & References

[1] I will refer to migrants who live in a country without the government’s authorization as “unauthorized migrants.” Other people prefer different terms, like illegal or undocumented immigrants.

[2] You can find Trump’s position paper on immigration at:

[3] Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Julia Prestonnov, “What Donald Trump’s Vow to Deport Up to 3 Million Immigrants Would Mean,” New York Times (November 14th, 2016).

[4] Andrew Kaczynski, “In 2011, Trump said he supported ‘amnesty’ for some undocumented immigrants,” CNN (November 5, 2016).

[5] Max Ehrenfreund, “The odd thing that happens when you actually ask Trump’s supporters about mass deportation,” Washington Post (November 9th) at:

[6] Davis and Prestonnov, “What Donald Trump’s Vow to Deport Up to 3 Million Immigrants Would Mean.”

[7] Peter Holley, “Trump proposes a border wall. But there already is one, and it gets climbed over,” Washington Post (April 2nd 2016) at:

[8] Ben Wofford, “Did Clinton once want to build ‘a wall’ too?” Politico (October 19, 2016) at:

[9] Marc Rosenblum, “Understanding the Potential Impact of Executive Action on Immigration Enforcement,” Migration Policy Institute (July 2015).

[10] TracImmigration, “Immigration Court Backlog Tool,” available at:

[11] David Bier, “Americans Support Immigration,” Niskanen Center (June 10, 2015) at:

[12] Antje Ellermann, States Against Migrants: Deportation in Germany and the United States (New York: Cambridge University Press 2009).

[13] But didn’t I just say that Trump’s proposals are not a radical departure from the status quo? I did. The status quo is also morally disastrous. So, even if Trump’s proposals are not a radical departure from the status quo, they are still terrible.

[14] Jens Manuel Krosgtad, Jeffrey Passel, and D’Vera Cohn, “5 facts about illegal immigration in the U.S.” PewResearch Center (November 3rd, 2016) at:

[15] Lyman Stone, “Who Is the Most Generous of Them All? Some Basic Statistics on Asylum, Refugees, and Resettlement” Medium (October 7, 2015), at

[16] UNHCR, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2015 (Geneva, Switzerland 2016), p. 3.

[17] Donald Trump, “Address on Immigration,” (August 31st, 2016) at:

[18] Randy Capps, Michael Fix, and Jie Zong, “A Profile of U.S. Children With Unauthorized Immigrant Parents,” Migration Policy Institute (January 2016).

[19] David Card, “The Impact of the Mariel Boatlift on the Miami Labor Market,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 43.2 (1990): 245–57; Giovanni Peri, “Do Immigrant Workers Depress the Wages of Native Workers?” IZA World of Labor, 42 (2014): 1–10.

[20] Amandine Aubry, Michał Burzyński and Frédéric Docquier, “The Welfare Impact of Global Migration in OECD Countries,” Journal of International Economics 101 (2016): 1–21.

[21] These income statistics come from The Maddison-Project,, 2013 version.

[22] Ben Gitis and Jacqueline Varas, “The Labor and Output Declines from Removing All Undocumented Immigrants,” The American Action Forum (May 5th, 2016).

[23] Benjamin Powell, “Coyote Ugly: The Deadweight Cost of Rent Seeking for Immigration Policy,” Public Choice, 150.1–2 (2012): 195–208.

[24] Ryan D. Enos, “Causal Effect of Intergroup Contact on Exclusionary Attitudes,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111.10 (2014): 3699–3704.

[25] Ronald Brownstein, “How the Election Revealed the Divide Between City and Country,” The Atlantic (November 17, 2016) at:

[26] Alex Nowrasteh, “Immigration and Crime – What the Research Says,” CATO Institute (July 14, 2015) at:

[27] Thomas J. Miles and Adam B. Cox, “Does Immigration Enforcement Reduce Crime? Evidence from Secure Communities,” The Journal of Law and Economics, 57.4 (2014): 937–73.

[28] Alex Nowrasteh, “Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis,” CATO Institute (September 2016).

[29] But I have not addressed all arguments in favor of Trump’s policies. One other prominent argument is that unauthorized migrants violated the law and thus they are fitting targets of deportation. This argument is hard to make out in a plausible way. Most Americans break the law. They routinely violate drug laws, traffic laws, intellectual property rights, and other laws. But it seems wrong to deport these citizens. So it is unclear why law-breaking justifies deporting unauthorized migrants.

[30] James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), pp. 7-8.

Javier Hidalgo
Javier Hidalgo
Javier Hidalgo is an assistant professor in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics with a focus on the ethics of immigration. He earned his PhD at Princeton University in 2011.

“How many newsworthy issues, which should have been the rightful domain of philosophy, have been usurped in recent years by religion, law, and psychology?”

Lee McIntyre

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