Conservatives were once famous for embracing the principle of the Law of Unintended Consequences. It was usually from the conservative side that any radical change was opposed with the common-sense observation that the change may well unleash a host of second-order consequences well beyond what was originally intended. Our political discourse is littered with warnings from the right about the dangerous consequences of all the different things that liberals supposedly want to do. So it is interesting to observe the we are now moving into a time period where the radical experiments are being done by a right-wing (no longer conservative) party. Take, for example, the plan to deport 11 million illegal immigrants. This plan is to be carried out with all haste, and apparently without any concern for unintended consequences.
Now the nature of unintended consequences as they are generally not predicted. Partly this is because some of the results are genuinely unforeseeable. But often perfectly foreseeable consequences are ignored in the rush to accomplish big things. If they were to stop and think about what the second-order consequences might be, it would be possible to foresee quite a few.
What are the second-order consequences of mass deportations of illegal immigrants? The most predictable would include economic dislocations, as well as police and/or police state overreach to include a wide range of large-scale civil rights violation, and not just of immigrants.
Now the motivations for expelling 11 million illegals are many. But for some it is to create jobs for Americans. This is unlikely to result, at least not in the long term. Among the economic consequences, the sudden removal of a substantial portion of the labor force is not going to immediately result in the jobs being filled by people who are not presently working, or who feel presently under-unemployed. With undocumented immigrants this is particularly the case because they occupy the very bottom of the economic ladder, often filling positions that no one is eager to do anyway, or at least not for the rate of pay that undocumented immigrants are willing to accept. So while we might see a dramatic rise in the price of farm labor as a short-term solution to replacing the suddenly-absent undocumented migrants (who in any case are already making $11 or $12 an hour in California) the long-term consequence is likely to be an acceleration towards automation in the farm sector.
Up until now automated fruit picking — whether strawberries or peaches — has been far too expensive to accomplish with available technology. The difficulty discerning the ripe from unripe fruit, as well as the challenge of being gentle in picking, would have required an extraordinarily expensive robot—far more expensive than would ever be remotely cost effective when competing with minimum wage labor. But with computer processing power falling continuously as a result of Moore’s Law (which predicts a doubling of processing power for the same cost every 18 months, or inversely a halving of the cost of processing power every 18 months) devices that can discern a ripe strawberry from an unripe strawberry, and then pick it gently, may be within reach in the very near future.
So rather than create a whole bunch of new jobs for citizens, the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants and the resulting work shortage at the bottom of the labor market may counter-intuitively result in a greater loss of available jobs, rather than in the creation of higher wage labor and vastly improved working conditions, and in any case, would result in a dramatic increase in the price of many foodstuffs. Further, at first only the larger farms would be able to afford the new robots. This would drive a further consolidation in the farming sector, further accelerating the trend towards mega-farms, and also reinforcing economic inequality, something the coming robot revolution is going to do anyway (robot owners get richer, everyone else gets poorer).
Further, a revolution in farming automation may well lead to innovations in robots folding shirts in stores (retail) as well as fast food, beginning a decimation of employment in the service sector more broadly. Farming robots and automation in the service sector are long-term trends that are going to happen anyway. But they will happen a lot more rapidly if the bottom end of the labor market suddenly disappears due to the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants. So you have to wonder if—rather than an unintended consequence—this isn’t actually intended by those who expect to profit from it.
Now the impacts in the US are just the most immediate direct and local second-order consequences. Other areas to exercise your imagination include what happens to the countries that will have to receive many of these deportees. Here the possibilities branch both positive and negative. On the plus side, the result may be a dramatic stimulation to their economies, allowing them to develop their economies into a more modern structure more rapidly because they suddenly have a better educated and more experienced workforce. But it could just as likely lead to a rapid destabilization of these neighboring countries (I am thinking primarily of Mexico, but also El Salvador and Guatemala—countries that have sent a large number of migrants to the United States). We may find out 10 years from now that our actions have precipitated a crisis that leads to a flood of refugees approximating what is happening with Syrians flooding into Europe. That is the nature of unintended consequences—you don’t really know what they are.
As far as civil liberties, the deportation of 11 million individuals from the middle of a society into which they are currently integrated is bound to cause a lot of collateral damage. The most obvious is the inevitable sundering of families that are currently living as integrated units with both parents present, but may soon have to contend with one or in some cases both parents deported, but the citizen children still present in the country. Most research on child development will tell you that to have one or both parents suddenly disappear is going to lessen the expected lifetime outcomes for those children. After all, this is been a major point in the culture wars of the last three decades. Conservatives have repeatedly lamented the breakup of the family and the loosening of social bonds, and listed the many ways in which children are harmed. In this case we are contemplating a policy that will produce millions—perhaps as many as 20 million—broken homes. This is not to be taken lightly, as the conservative rhetoric of the past two decades makes clear.
Beyond the traumatized generation of American citizens with forcibly deported parents—and all the social services costs and criminal justice costs this will likely incur (as compared to the outcomes you would have had had they continued to live as integrated families) you also have the harms to civil liberties that will inevitably result from the process of identifying, arresting, and deporting these illegal citizens.
The immigration courts are already overwhelmed with cases at the current rate of deportations (which have averaged about 300,000 per year in the past decade). Congress will need to appropriate large sums of money in order to ensure that the court processes continue to function in the interests of justice; that everyone accused of being in the country without proper authorization is actually guilty of such. Fair trial is a fundamental tenet of the American legal criminal justice system, but many on the radical right seemed quite willing to throw out due process entirely on the mere allegation that a person is illegal, without first determining such definitively. There are plenty of green card holders who might be deported despite the possession of a perfectly visa. And there are even instances on record of our current system, which is not any particular hurry, disbelieving the citizenship documents of a person accused of being here illegally, and upon receiving a birth certificate, double down and adding the felony charge of impersonating a US citizen rather than ending the deportation proceedings. The current system is already stretched thin, with much evidence of rights violations. How much more of this are we likely to see in an accelerated system that is in a hurry to get lots of people out of the country as quickly as possible?
Before they can be deported, illegal immigrants have to be arrested. And to do that you have to find them. The problem there is it is not at all clear how you tell illegals from citizens. The most obvious way is also problematic at an enforcement level: you simply racially profile. But there are only about 50 million legal Hispanics in this country (many with ancestors going back to when the US annexed the Southwest from Mexico in the 1840s) so finding the 11 million illegals among them is going to require a widespread abuse of the civil liberties of innocent American citizens. And either you go after everyone who looks Hispanic, which is in any case unconstitutional, or you regularly check documents on everyone, creating something that looks an awful lot like a police state.
But even random checkpoints and document checks are not going to get all 11 million undocumented immigrants, even in four years. So the temptation will be to undertake more aggressive measures. Door-to-door searches? Blanket warrants? Permanent checkpoints all over the country looking for illegals (we’ve already got them, but there are only a few dozen at the moment)? Since undocumented immigrants are broadly dispersed around the entire country, and not just in the border states, this means that all citizens are going to have to pull over at these “fourth-amendment-free” citizenship stops, weather in Ohio, Michigan, Maine, or Colorado. Conservatives in the past were deeply suspicious of a police state and highly resistant to anything that would permanently establish such easily abused processes of government power. But the radical right of today seems to have no problem with a police state as long as they believe that this increased and oppressive government power will only be targeted towards “illegals” who in any case do not look like quote “real Americans”. That is, the long legacy of racial thinking has once again allowed whites to support oppressive policies they would never be in favor of it they thought their own group would be targeted.
Even if you choose to ignore the dangers of decreasing civil liberties, there is the question of how effectively you actually could ramp up this type of enforcement. Properly hiring and training law enforcement officers is a time-consuming process. Today is not like the old West where you can toss somebody a badge and say, “I deputize you to go forth and dispense justice.” All citizens are going to want the newly hired Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents to be trained in the basics of the Fourth Amendment, as well as such niceties as when and how they are allowed to shoot people, the limits on their arrest power, etc.
Beyond the question of how much training these new agents will get, there is the question of how big the pool of potential candidates there is. How many people are there who would make suitable Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents? Will the government keep high standards during the hiring surge? Or in the rush to recruit, is the federal government going to drop their existing standards in order to meet quotas, suddenly tolerating things like previous misdemeanors, or even previous felonies, for new law enforcement agencies as the military has been known to do in times of war. The big difference here is, instead of serving overseas in the primary capacity of killing the enemy, these newly empowered Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents are going to be given weapons and set loose on our communities with a fairly broad mandate. Do we really want people with prior felonies for things like assault and domestic abuse to be waivered into an enforcement program because the government is short on people? That there will be a pressure to do this type of thing is fairly foreseeable, but the long litany of future abuses is probably going to be considered an unintended consequence by people in the future looking back and evaluating the decision to support a vigorous and energetic total deportation program.
So this is the irony of our modern politics: that members of the so-called conservative wing of our political discourse are the ones that are pushing a radical agenda, in violation of many of their previously centrally held principles. I am sure there are many conservative friends on the right who share at least some of these concerns. But they are not the ones running the Republican Party. Instead the radicals have taken over, with consequences we are all likely going to find surprising.