Deporting ‘illegal’ migrants: an open letter to President-elect Trump
11 November 2016
Borders Migration policy Undocumented
Dear Mr. Trump,
The American people have voted and they voted for you. Although their choice has no easy explanation, the first analyses suggest that you may have reached an audience that has felt left behind, ignored, and overwhelmed by increasingly complex issues of global change creeping into their lives, such as inequality and conflict. Your simple, straightforward response to their discomfort and fear – by pointing out immigrants as the cause and offering easy solutions by deporting them – seems to have given people hope that they can shake these fears and feel ‘great’ again.
It would be fantastic if you could restore voters’ waning faith in democracy, by showing that they do have a voice and their concerns are not being ignored, and that the political leader they elected does what they were promised.
So I would like to join you in thinking about how you can live up to your campaign promises. I would start with point seven on your 10-point plan to put America first: ‘Ensure that other countries take their people back when we order them deported’. Making this one work is going to be a key condition for many other points on your list. Practices that you want to end: catch-and-release of undocumented migrants, sanctuary cities, non-enforcement and amnesties, are in my view all pragmatic solutions to non-deportability.
I know you have made great progress in thinking about this already. As an entrepreneur, you think outside the box, in possibilities. You are not overly concerned with the underlying facts or the economics of illegal migration, let alone the potential legal difficulties relating to these key points of your campaign. You said:
"If somebody walks from Mexico or wherever they come from, and they come into the country, security guards bring 'em back. You don't go through 10 years of courts and stuff. Well, this is no different."
Moreover, if these people are ‘illegal’ migrants, there don’t have to be legal issues with deporting them:
"It's called illegal immigrants, okay? Now some people are talking about undocumented, because it sounds softer, I don't use that word."
I’m sure that here in Europe, lots of governments and political parties are going to be keen to follow your example to simply deport ‘illegal’ migrants. Your entrepreneurial attitude to politics relieves them from the burden of the liberal democracy: having to treat ‘illegal’ migrants as humans.
Now let’s look at the practicalities. Liberated by the idea that when dealing with ‘illegal’ migrants you don’t have to deal with legal issues or (human) rights, what are some out-of-the-box options to make this plan work?
- As you have suggested, send them back the way they came: by walking back to Mexico ‘or wherever they came from’. Only the thing about ‘illegal’ migrants is that they are undocumented. In addition to being an excessively soft term used by people that think that humans can’t be illegal, it also simply means that you don’t have identity or travel documents. As you need travel documents to cross an international border post, this becomes a pressing issue. Even if US border control were willing to let them through, Mexican border enforcement might hold different views. The US is, after all, not the only country that wants to control its borders.
- Of course, as you might say, not having the right documents hasn’t stopped people from coming. So you could indeed send them back the way they came, through the desert. You’d need to do this quietly though. What a diplomatic mess it would be if Mexico discovered a neighbouring state busy smuggling people into their country! The only obstacle would be the impenetrable physical wall you have promised to build there: you might smuggle some people over a normal wall, but an impenetrable one is usually more difficult to get through.
- Create travel documents such as a laissez passer, which needs to be issued by the country of origin, so that migrants can cross the border legally. This is what usually happens when states want to deport undocumented migrants. But many countries of origin aren’t keen to issue these travel documents for people that face deportation. You could in this case consider using a carrot-and-stick approach to make countries of origin cooperate. For this to work, it helps if the country is in a dependent relationship with you – see the EU’s aid-for-deportation deal with Afghanistan and mobility partnerships that make aid and agreements conditional on compliance with ‘migration management’ efforts. The more a country depends on aid, the better it works. So in order for compliance with deportation to work, you need to make states aid-dependent. But wait, you wanted to cut foreign aid to be able to focus on Making America Great Again.
- Return unwanted migrants by airplane or other ‘official’ means of transportation. Oh dear, skip back to point 2: the same issues with documentation pertain.
I’m running out of options, Mr. Trump, and I’m curious to hear your ideas. Now that you are elected, how are you going to ensure that other countries take their people back when you order their deportation, while also keeping your other promises to your voters, such as building that wall and cutting foreign aid? The time has come to start thinking carefully about that, as you can be sure you will be held accountable by the people that elected you.
I’m also worried about the way you have been able to sell your easy slogans, slogans into which you have distilled problems of people’s livelihoods, wider difficulties in the US and at a global level. Playing on voters’ need to deal with their discomfort in the present and fear of the future, you managed to convince them that immigrants are the problem that you are able to solve. Not enough voters were able to counter that narrative by recognising those plans as completely unfeasible and an inadequate solution to any of their problems.
Breaking down understanding of complex issues of global change in relation to migration into accessible and relevant pieces of information is our job as researchers. Connecting public perceptions, emotions and facts about migration by provoking thoughts and starting dialogues is our responsibility. So far we have failed.
Your political victory is our academic failure as migration scholars. In the next four years, we will need to do better.
I wish us both good luck.
About the author
Marieke van Houte is a Marie Curie Research Fellow at IMI. Her research focuses on the linkages between migration and return migration, conflict, development and change. She has been involved in research on return migration of undocumented migrants and rejected asylum seekers since 2006. Her monograph entitled Return Migration to Afghanistan: Moving Back or Moving Forward? will be published this winter by Palgrave Macmillan. Marieke is also one of the initiators of CONTAINED Project, an ongoing public engagement initiative that connects experience, research and creative learning to contribute to dialogues and greater understanding about migration.
About this piece
IMI does not have an institutional view and does not aim to present one. The views expressed in this blog are those of individual authors.