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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

What Would Happen if America Actually Adopted Donald Trump's Insane Immigration Plan?

We asked an expert whether the Republican frontrunner's new immigration policy would make America great again.
Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

In the two months that Donald Trump has been running for president, the billionaire real-estate mogul has had quite a lot to say on the subject of immigration. But while he's caused cranial explosions across The Americas with his insistence that the Mexican government is "sending" its drug-dealers and rapists across the US border, Trump has said little about what he would actually do to deal with the issue.


That is, until now. Earlier this week, Trump unveiled his plans for policy reform, laying out his ideas to curb both legal and illegal immigration into the US. Posted on his campaign website under the title "Immigration Policy That Will Make America Great Again," the proposal promises a rough existence for undocumented immigrants under President Trump.

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In addition to building a border wall—and making Mexico pay for it, of course—Trump wouldbeef up border security, increase deportations, and generally make it harder for unauthorized workers to get jobs or send money home. The plan would also impose elaborate new hurdles on the legal immigration system. And it would repeal at least part of the 14 Amendment, that part of the Constitution that guarantees birthright citizenship.

The whole thing is predictably draconian, showcasing the nativist alarmism and Trump-style outrage that has pushed The Donald to the top of the GOP's presidential field. But what would happen if Trump's nativist fantasies actually came true?

To find out, we called Duncan Wood, director of Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute at the Smithsonian. A former international relations professor at the Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology, Wood's research focus on Mexico's North American relations—and he has some interesting thoughts on whether Trump's immigration plan will make America great again.


VICE: Will Trump's plan make America great again?
Duncan Wood: I think that the plan would be hugely damaging to America, both in terms of its economy, and in terms of its relations with the world.

It involves some economic strong-arming aimed at getting Mexicans to pay for a border wall. Won't that squander goodwill between the two countries?
That's the height of an understatement. I love it. It's beautiful. Is it worth calling for the Mexicans to pay for a wall, in terms of the goodwill that it will use up? Well, the Mexicans have already said they're not gonna pay for the wall.

But if Trump could make them pay for the wall, would it be worth it?
Oh, absolutely not. I don't really understand what the logic is behind the wall to be honest with you. A wall seems like a very 20th century approach to controlling immigration—one that was wrong from the very beginning, just simply because if you build a wall, people build ladders to get over it, or they dig tunnels to get under it. I think that's what the experience has shown us over the years: Every time you put up physical barriers to people's movements, they go around them, over them, or under them.

So just how bad would Trump's plan be for the US-Mexico relationship?
The fact is that Mexico and the United States have worked hard on developing a more positive relationship over the last 30 years. It used to be a relationship based upon antagonism, where Mexico saw the United States as an enemy. And now, Mexico sees the United States as a partner. And the United States sees Mexico as a partner. That's an enormous, qualitative change in the relationship, and you have to think long and hard about how much of that goodwill you want to risk.


Trump has also proposed tripling the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. Would that actually deter illegal border crossings?
Recent experience in this area is actually quite informative. When regulations on undocumented immigrants began to be more closely enforced [around 2008], and new regulations were put in place by local authorities in the United States , making life more difficult for immigrants, word spread very, very quickly that the attitude in the United States had changed.

I think we have to be honest in saying that that was a deterrent for some people. But it's very difficult to say how big of a deterrent that was, because it coincided with the uneconomic downturn, or economic crisis in the US.

If Trump did manage to deter immigration, what kind of effect would that have in the US?
One of the things that we've seen in recent experience is that a lot of farmers [in the US] have been unable to recruit Americans for the jobs that they have available. They've been unable to find the migrant labor that they want, so the jobs have gone unfilled, which means that crops have been left to rot in the field, which means that American farmers have been losing income. I think part of the logic here is that if you just keep out the immigrants, then Americans will fill the jobs, and that has been shown time and time again not to be true.

Can Trump fulfill his promise to deport 76,000 "criminal aliens" released by Obama?
Oh yeah, you can certainly do that. [But] when you talk about 11 million people, it becomes incredibly difficult.


Trump hasn't been totally clear on how those deportations would work. What would the process be?
You couldn't do it all at once. It would take time, and you would have to go through due process here. So this is assuming you can bypass all the procedures of the American legal system, the court system, the appeals process, and all the other things. But supposing that you could sort of wave the magic wand and get past all of that and say, 'Today we're going to start deporting people!', you've got to work out where they come from. You can't just deport them across the border into Mexico. Not all of them are Mexicans.

Then you've got to figure out how to actually fly them to their country of origin. So you've got to come to a collaborative agreement with other governments. It's not impossible to do. It's gonna be expensive, and it's going to use an awful lot of bureaucracy and administrative capacity.

He clarified part of his plan this weekend, saying he would "keep the families together, but they have to go." It sounds like he plans to deport "anchor babies," who are born to undocumented mothers but are themselves US citizens. How could he manage that?
Unless you change the 14th Amendment, that is illegal. You'd have to change the wording of the 14th Amendment to take out that constitutional right to citizenship if you're born in the United States.

Yeah, he says in the plan that he wants to get rid of birthright citizenship. Is this some weird thing the US does?
That's the norm around the world. If you're born in the United Kingdom, if you're born in Canada, if you're born in Mexico you're allowed to claim citizenship. There are some countries where that's not the case. For example, Japan doesn't offer citizenship if you're born in Japanese territory. But [birthright citizenship] tends to be the norm around the world.

Trump also wants to crack down on H-1B visas, for skilled immigrant workers. Would this open up jobs for American workers?
It seems to me that the basic idea is to make sure that Americans aren't available to take those jobs before they're actually offered to foreigners. There are some kinds of employment here in the United States where they do this [before the visa process can begin]. And that's fair enough. In certain businesses in the United States, if you're going to hire a foreigner, you have to really try to find an American first of all. I get that. That makes sense. I understand. But even when that's the case, [businesses] still end up hiring foreigners.

Trump would also put up hurdles for legal immigration, including requiring that people who want to move to the US be able to prove that they could pay their living expenses. What kind of effects would that have on the system?
Insisting that [immigrants] have a plan, or a family member, or guaranteed employment for a certain amount of time—in other words, that [they] have a sponsor—that makes sense. [But] a lot of other countries make it more difficult, and they're suffering. They're not able to find the young talent that they want. So you want to strike the right balance between making sure that the people coming to your country are not a burden on society, and making sure that it won't be so difficult that people don't come.

I think Trump would like people to not come. So what happens if he gets his way?
I've had the chance to speak to so many immigrants throughout my life, and you hear about what they went through to make it to North America. People are incredibly brave and willing to put up with all kinds of hardship to make their children's lives better. That's what people do for their kids—some people are willing to make enormous sacrifices for their kids, and I think that's something that's kind of common in the immigrant experience.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.