On Donald Trump and the removal of 11 million illegal immigrants

At first, Donald Trump was a punch line. By June, the billionaire had graduated to a genuine electoral oddity. Two weekends ago, shut out of an Atlanta event, he proved himself a boor — though not a boor to be trifled with.

Finally, on Sunday, Trump declared himself a clear and present danger to a national Republican Party trying not to go 0-and-3 in White House contests. The GOP front-runner has led 16 rivals to the very edge of a conversation that a ruling U.S. political party has no business entertaining.

Over the weekend, Trump released his policy platform on immigration. Much of it is old hat. Some of it is downright silly.

The Donald wants a wall, of course. That has become the required prerequisite for any Republican discussion of immigration reform. But Trump wants Mexico to pay for it, and he would confiscate all cash sent home by illegal immigrants living here until he gets his way.

He would temporarily cap all legal immigration to force U.S. tech companies such as Facebook to look homeward for employees. “Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator, Marco Rubio, has a bill to triple H-1Bs that would decimate women and minorities,” Trump explains, referring to the federal work visa program.

Trump would also end “birthright citizenship” for those born to noncitizens on U.S. soil, as currently provided by the 14th Amendment — once considered a signature policy victory for Republicans in the post-Civil War era. Yet even this does not separate Trump from much of the GOP pack. Gov. Nathan Deal sponsored such a measure while serving in Congress.

No, the most controversial portion of Trump’s immigration reform policy isn’t set down in writing. It was fleshed out in an interview with Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Under his plan, 11 million undocumented residents in the U.S. would have to be rounded up and pushed out of the country, Trump admitted. From the transcript:

Trump: “But they have to go. But they have to go.”

Todd: “What if they have no place to go?”

Trump: “We will work with them. They have to go. Chuck, we either have a country or we don’t have a country.”

Such talk has occurred, and has been accepted, on many a political stage here. Georgia is governed through the prism of a conservative Republican electorate. Endorsements of mass deportation have become slabs of inconsequential red meat routinely tossed out to a large portion of hungry voters.

Even on a national level, there is still an incentive for extremism. Earlier this month, a Wall Street Journal/NBC nationwide poll indicated 57 percent support among Republicans for giving illegal immigrants already here some sort of legal status.

Which also means a sizable 43 percent insist on hunting down and deporting all paperless residents — and these are the voters Trump is after.

“Trump is saying things that a lot of Americans like hearing. It is campaign entertainment,” said state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga.

But the 2016 race for the White House won’t be settled by a GOP primary. And this is where the danger lies.

“It’s not practical to drive 11 million people out. That’s not going to work,” U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in Iowa, referring to Trump’s immigration policy as “gibberish.”

The next day, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was in downtown Atlanta, mostly to raise cash. But he stopped by the Varsity to eat a hot dog, shake a few hands and confer with local journalists — after he had wiped the frosted orange off his lips. Watching behind us was Senator Mullis, who favors a tough but achievable path to legal status for illegal immigrants. He has endorsed Bush.

The candidate, who speaks often of his Mexican-born wife and bicultural family, told us that he doesn’t like the idea of abandoning birthright citizenship.

“I’m opposed to changing something that’s already embedded in the Constitution,” Bush said.

Then came the larger question of expelling millions upon millions of people from U.S. territory. “We need to create a path to earned legal status. That’s the thoughtful way of dealing with this,” Bush said. “What Mr. Trump has proposed will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. It will disrupt communities. Isn’t feasible, isn’t practical.”

Bush is only partly right. The Center for American Progress estimates that mass deportation would cost $10,070 per person, figuring in costs for apprehension, detention, legal processing and transportation. That’s $114 billion — slightly less than a 2011 estimate by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

But the CAP might be dismissed by some as a liberal organization. So let’s scratch out the bare-bones political math ourselves.

A standard American railroad boxcar is about 60 feet in length and 9.5 feet wide. That’s 570 square feet. Standing up, the average person occupies two square feet of space. Conceivably, you could pack 285 people into a single boxcar, if no care were taken for sanitation, feeding, sleep and such.

With 11.3 million people to remove, that would require nearly 40,000 boxcars in a train 450 miles long.

The point isn’t that mass deportation isn’t feasible, as Bush said. Absolutely, it can be done. It has been done — that’s the problem. It’s a matter of morality and political will, not logistics.

Much has been said about the impact of Trump’s remarks on the growing Hispanic vote. But certainly there are others watching this play out. I was with one of Georgia’s top Republican strategists last week — he is eyeing the upcoming congressional debate over the Iran nuclear deal as an ideal opportunity to realign Jewish voters into the GOP camp.

This goal may be much tougher to accomplish when, at the same time, your party is discussing the removal of a certain population, judged to be undesirable and larger than that of New York City. That’s something that could resonate.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.