During last night’s debate, Donald Trump doubled down on his intention to build a wall on the Southern American border. He wants to kick all illegal aliens out of the country and then keep them out using a physical barrier paid for by Mexico. Most of the responses to his plan have either involved expressing disbelief that he could actually do it, or condemning him morally for the idea itself. These are legitimate criticisms, but I would like to suggest that we take another approach. Let’s imagine what the process of mass deportation would look like. Following Plato and Kant, I think that the way to respect someone is to take his or her ideas seriously. Let’s stop dismissing Trump and do just this.
Let’s imagine the process begins by President Trump announcing that the forced deportations will begin one month later and orders everyone who is in the US illegally to leave before then. There are anywhere from 11 to 20 million illegal immigrants in the US right now and most will stay where they are. They are, after all, already breaking the law. Let’s assume, generously, that 10% leave of their own free will. This means that there will be a mass exodus of one to two million people leaving their homes—poor people who can’t afford plane tickets, many of whom don’t have cars—people, in fact, with no other place to go back to. We would have to commandeer every city bus and even then, we probably have to pack up the migrants in trains like Holocaust victims. But first, we’d have to dispose of all the train cargo to make room for the people. Millions of dollars’ worth of goods wasted. Millions of businesses not getting what they need.
What would result is a forced march of families walking South across the US. People with no access to toilets, shelter, or food. Many would die of exposure, some would starve or have heart attacks. Many would be victims of crimes, and not necessarily from other marchers, but from criminals, and opportunists, and people who want to steal their stuff, rape them, or just cause trouble. The best case scenario is that this takes upwards of two months, depending on how far from the Southern border the alien is. So, now there are dead bodies in the street and victims who are too broken to continue their journey. They are stuck, but let’s ignore them. Let’s pretend they don’t exist.
There are now anywhere from 10 – 19 million people illegally hiding in the US. How do we find them? There is only one way: go door to door. President Trump has to mobilize the military. He has to call up the National Guard and reservists, and he has to militarize the police. Soldiers have to be recalled from fighting in the Middle East, and police have to be removed from walking the beat or responding to mass shootings. They have to walk through every neighborhood and look in every house. The illegals could be hiding anywhere; many will have allies. This would cost billions of dollars, money that would have to be diverted from schools, food safety, and infrastructure. We’d have to raise taxes—by a lot—and even then, the country would go broke pretty quickly. (Following Trump, we’re not taking about the cost of the wall; Mexico pays for that. This is just the cost of deportation.)
There are 124.6 million households in the US. There is no time to get individual warrants or engage in due process. The soldiers would simply demand entry and search every house they encounter. In the process, they’ll not only discover illegal aliens, they’ll come across people’s drug and porn stashes. They’ll discover sex toys, notice unhappy marriages, be waylaid by the lonely and desperate. They'll come to know our darkest secrets. Every intimate fact of our life could now be made public. We’d be open to ridicule, blackmail, and exploitation from any searcher who wants to take advantage of us.
And how long would this take? Let’s assume that it takes ten minutes to search a house (including knocking, walking around, and leaving). This would take 2,076,666 person-hours or 51916 work weeks (at 40 hours). This amounts to 998 years’ worth of labor, and this is if we check each house only once, not go back to verify that someone hasn’t snuck in three months after the initial search. Of course, it doesn’t work quite like this since we don’t search just one house at a time. There are 1.46 million military personnel in the US and 765,000 peace officers. So, two million people, divided up into, say, groups of four. I’m not an economist and I can’t do the math, so let’s just reduce the 998 years to 50 and call it a day (an overly generous estimation, for sure). That’s two generations of Americans who will live much of their lives with their houses open to military intrusion.
Of course, people will resist. There are 350 million guns in the US. The average gun owner has 8 firearms (the top 3 percent of gun owners average 25). These include hand guns, semi-automatic weapons, rifles and shotguns, not to mention military weapons like grenades. Some of those people are going to refuse to open their house for a search. As is well known, many people own guns precisely to stop government overreach like I’m describing. Some of them are going to stand their ground. Some are going to shoot first and ask questions later.
Let’s imagine then that only one percent of the guns are used against the military. Out of at least 100,000,000 gun owners, that’s one million people who fire on the searchers. In most of these instances, someone is going to end up dead. Probably two, though: first the person the gun owner targets and then the gun owner him or herself, after the military fires back. That’s as many as 2,000,000 people dead.
What have I missed? Well, I haven’t acknowledged that many legal immigrants will be rounded up by accident, as will will many American citizens solely because their accents or skin colors will imply illegality. In fact, since there are plenty of Caucasian illegal aliens as well, everyone will be suspect, not just people of color. There will be riots, food shortages, and society will break down. If it doesn’t, who will pick our crops for minimum wage, ten hours a day, in the hot California sun during harvest? Who will do the millions of jobs that Americans have repeatedly shown they don’t want, the jobs that illegal aliens already do for low wages, under the table, to get themselves a better life? And, yet again. there is the question of how we would pay for it all—the round the clock military deployment, the hospital bills, the restructuring of our economy?
Is this the America we want? Or, has this reductio ad absurdum shown that the whole idea is nonsense?
Obviously, my approach is flawed. After 50 years, all the hiding aliens will be dead and decomposed. The soldiers who started the search will have been replaced by their own children. There is simply no way that we could sustain military rule for this long. We probably couldn’t even sustain it for a year. But the anarchic violence would come anyway and we would end up destroying ourselves before we could stop it. The best case scenario would look something like 1984, Brazil, or The Fifth Element. The worst case would look like the world of Mad Max. This is what Donald Trump proposes.
2,500 years ago, Socrates was put on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens. As Plato tells it, he had the opportunity to cross examine his accusers, to show that they were attacking him for political reasons. The upshot: Socrates proved that they had never actually thought about what it meant to corrupt young people at all. They had no idea who or how children are educated. They justified killing Socrates by acting without thinking. Ignorance killed Socrates. Ignorance and political rage.
This, ultimately, is what Trump is guilty of. He’s may be an immoral monster. He may be making promises he can’t keep. He may even be a racist or a fascist. But at the root of it all, he is simply lazy and ignorant. He is offering proposals that are so completely untenable that they are incoherent. Donald Trump has proposed an idea he has never actually thought about. If he had, he wouldn’t have proposed it in the first place.
Follow the author on Twitter: @jackrweinstein