TEXAS VIEW: Trump’s pledge to deport millions of immigrants would devastate Texas businesses

THE POINT: Texans depend on immigrant workers, including those who are here illegally. Donald Trump’s promise of mass deportations might appeal to some voters, but it would have grave consequences.

As Texans rebuild their storm-shattered homes and businesses, many of the workers they call will be immigrants. Some will be undocumented. Under a second Donald Trump presidency, they might not be here to help. Reviving threats from 2016, the former president has pledged to deport the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. He has called for deploying the National Guard, local law enforcement and perhaps the military to carry out deportations, and flirted with the idea of building detention camps.

This fantasy will appeal to many voters. Illegal immigration ranks among Americans’ top concerns, with record numbers of unauthorized immigrants apprehended at the southern border in the last two years. Meanwhile, Gov. Greg Abbott has vaulted to the heights of Republican politics, thanks to the costly, optics-intensive Operation Lone Star.

But mass deportations would have grave consequences for Texas. Immigrants – authorized and unauthorized, highly educated and low-skilled – are critical to our workforce. In February 2024, the nonprofit Every Texan reported that for every 1,000 workers, Texas immigrants and asylum seekers add $2.6 million to state and local taxes in their first year of eligibility. Once they get work permits, new immigrants in Texas earned an average of $20,000 in their first year, rising to $29,000 by their fifth year.

Undocumented workers also bring a net cost benefit, researcher Jose Ivan Rodriguez-Sanchez found in a 2020 report for the Baker Institute for Public Policy. Fully calculating cost and benefits for immigration, direct and indirect, is a complex task. But, Rodriguez-Sanchez found, in 2018 workers from Texas’ estimated 1.6 million undocumented residents made up 8.2 percent of the state workforce. These immigrants generated costs such as education, medical care and incarceration. But their unemployment rate was 5.7%, and overall, the revenue they brought to Texas exceeded what Texas spent on them for public services, with an estimated net benefit of $420.9 million in fiscal year 2018. For every dollar spent on public services for undocumented immigrants, undocumented immigrants provided Texas with $1.21 in fiscal revenue.

These immigrants are deeply enmeshed in Texas culture. Nationally, an estimated 62 percent of unauthorized immigrants have lived in this country for at least 10 years. In 2018, 1.4 million U.S. citizens in Texas were living with at least one relative who was undocumented.

Long-settled populations with deep roots in the United States

“This is a long-settled population with deep roots in the United States,” said Michelle Mittelstadt, communications director for the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. “People with U.S.-born children, who have been in their workplaces for many years, who have opened businesses and employ workers including U.S. workers, who have homes, including loans.”

Mass removal of workers would devastate Texas businesses, especially restaurants and building companies. “The construction industry is perhaps the most dependent on undocumented workers,” said author Loren Steffy, an expert on Texas immigrants and the construction industry. Commercial builders, he explained, must ask unions to supply the workers they need. But unions frequently don’t have enough workers to offer. Contractors then may use other workers, typically turning for this to labor brokers – who tend to supply workers who are undocumented.

Yet business owners rarely publicize these dilemmas. The ferocious political rhetoric surrounding immigration is too threatening. One exception: Houston construction subcontractor Stan Marek, with whom Steffy coauthored a book. One of Marek’s common-sense proposals: an ID system giving undocumented workers tamper-proof IDs that permit them to work only for employers who pay payroll taxes and withhold federal income tax from employee paychecks. This would also allow employers to invest in training.

Texas businesses must be able to honestly disclose their labor needs

For real changes in policy, though, Texas business must openly air its needs. This could start with more robust activism from a state-level consortium of Texas business interests that rely on immigrant workers and clients, national business immigration advocate Laura Reiff said. The group should include leaders from agriculture, high tech, health care, restaurants, higher education and construction. This is especially urgent because migration itself has transformed. At the Texas/Mexico border, a migration flow once dominated by male workers from Mexico now includes large shares of families and unaccompanied children, many of them seeking asylum. In 2023, 51 percent arrived from beyond Mexico and Central America. Texas and the nation need a new, hemispheric approach to adapt our society – and our businesses – to these immense changes.

Texans rightly want to update the immigration system. But as the Editorial Board has noted before, turning the border into a military front doesn’t do that.

Nor does Trump’s fantastical deportation plan, which could cost the equivalent of 30 percent of the 2024 Pentagon budget. That’s before the recession that would likely be triggered from removing so many workers from the economy. Instead, businesses deserve lawmakers who respect their labor needs. Communities need leaders who will honor their families and institutions. And Texas needs workers who are decently treated and decently paid and who can keep Texas growing, storm after storm.

Austin American-Statesman