Trump's Tough Immigration Talk Comes With a High Price Tag

Are Americans prepared to spend a trillion dollars to deport undocumented migrants?


With the endorsement of a prominent Republican U.S. senator who was formerly critical of Donald Trump's immigration hawkishness, the Republican party seems wedded this year to a scheme for mass deportation of undocumented migrants. As it embraces the draconian policy, the GOP also attaches itself to the huge price tag inevitably associated with expelling millions of people from the country.

Turnaround on Immigration

"If reelected, Donald Trump has said he's willing to build migrant detention camps and deploy the U.S. military to deport the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country," Kristen Welker asked of Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) on NBC News's Meet the Press. "It would be the largest deportation operation in American history. Do you support that plan?"

"Yes, we are going to have to do something," responded Rubio after arguing that the number of undocumented migrants is much higher. "Unfortunately, we're going to have to do something dramatic to remove people from this country that are here illegally, especially people we know nothing about."

A son of Cuban immigrants and, at one time, strongly critical of Trump's proposal to end birthright citizenship and otherwise restrict immigration, Rubio's turnaround matches the direction of his party, which takes a hard line on the issue. But if Trump plans "the largest deportation operation in American history"—his own words, adopted by Welker—we can assume that such a big-government scheme will come with matching costs. That's exactly what number crunchers predict.

A Big Price Tag

"The costs of the former president's plan to deport the more than 14 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. today could easily reach more than $1 trillion over 10 years, before taking into account the labor costs necessary for such a project or the unforeseen consequences of reducing the labor supply by such drastic amounts over a short period of time," MarketWatch's Chris Matthews reported this week of the results of a Penn Wharton Budget Model (PWBM) analysis.

Trump's plan is still taking shape, though the former and perhaps future president has proposed using both the military and local law enforcement to eject migrants in this country illegally. If that policy was put into effect, "the removal of one million immigrants would cost the federal government between $40 billion and $50 billion over 10 years, and up to $100 billion if those immigrants were higher-paid workers," Matthews wrote of PWBM's finding.

Matthews notes that immigration hawks like Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), predict as many as one million deportations per year under tough enforcement. That's quite a reach, considering that deportations peaked at an average of 383,307 per year under former President Barack Obama. A dramatically higher target means rapidly accumulating costs, with the trillion-dollar price potentially reached after a decade.

PWBM's estimate, it should be noted, comes in high relative to some other sources that still name a staggering price for deportation. In 2015, the Center for American Progress, which opposes restrictive immigration policy, calculated that "a mass deportation strategy would cost an average of $10,070 per person, for a total of $114 billion to remove 11.3 million people." Adjusted for Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation figures, that's roughly $153 billion in 2024 dollars.

CIS, which takes a hard line on immigration, used a slightly higher per-migrant cost for its estimate, resulting in a total "cost of deportation of $124.1 billion" for 11.43 million undocumented migrants based on 2016 numbers. Adjusted for inflation, that's about $164 billion now.

The free-market American Action Forum (AAF) predicted in 2015 the federal government would "need to spend $100 billion to $300 billion arresting and removing all undocumented immigrants residing in the country." That's $134 billion to $402 billion now. But AAF warned that border enforcement to prevent further influx of undocumented migrants would cost an additional $315 billion ($422 billion in 2024).

CIS offsets the price of deporting millions of people by comparing it to what the organization claims is a "total lifetime fiscal drain of $746.3 billion" for the population of undocumented immigrants. But as MarketWatch observes, most experts disagree that undocumented migrants constitute a net drain – they believe that, on balance, they add to the country's economy.

The Economy Also Takes a Hit

"Under current law, unauthorized workers…generally do not qualify for federal benefits," PWBM economists point in a separate analysis. They add that "more deportations, though, leads to less economic growth." As a result, according to PWBM, with the implementation of restrictive policies, "GDP in 2050 will be four percent lower relative to no additional deportations."

AAF predicted that with deportations, "the labor force would shrink by 6.4 percent and, as a result, in 20 years the U.S. GDP would be almost 6 percent lower than it would be without fully enforcing current law."

In 2017, the Center for Migrant Studies cautioned that with a mass deportation program, "gross domestic product (GDP) would be reduced by 1.4 percent in the first year, and cumulative GDP would be reduced by $4.7 trillion over 10 years."

Obviously, there's a range of costs projected for a policy shift to mass deportations of undocumented migrants. That's because it has never been tried on the scale envisioned by Trump and his supporters. In fact, if Rubio is correct that the real number of people in the country in defiance of the law is "upwards of 20, 25, maybe 30 million," deportations will have to be that much more aggressive, with an even higher price tag to match.

Americans May Regret the Cost of Immigration Enforcement

That said, Americans consistently name immigration as a leading concern, topping other issues for three months running as of April, according to Gallup. Polling gives Trump the edge on the issue nationally and in key battleground states.

"Trump's policies are described as putting the interests of current U.S. citizens ahead of the interests of recent immigrants, whereas many Arizonans say Mr. Biden's policies don't," finds CBS News/YouGov.

Still, if Trump and company want to own the issue, the costs associated with it also belong to them. At a time when the federal government is broke, up to a trillion dollars in extra expense may be a hard sell.