"12 million illegal immigrants, to send them back, 500,000 a month, is just not - not possible."
That was former Florida Republican Governor Jeb Bush at the Fox Business-Wall Street Journal Republican Presidential Debate in Milwaukee, Wis. on Nov. 10, stating that deporting illegal immigrants - all of them - would simply not be possible.
Bush was responding to businessman Donald Trump's call for the deportation of millions of illegal immigrants at the debate, when he cited a program by then President Dwight D. Eisenhower: "Let me just tell you that Dwight Eisenhower, good president, great president, people liked him. ‘I like Ike,' right? The expression. ‘I like Ike.' Moved a 1.5 million illegal immigrants out of this country..."
Here, Trump was referring to a 1954 Eisenhower deportation program in Border States as proof that something could in fact be done to address the issue. The Eisenhower approach came about after more than a million estimated migrant workers had crossed into the U.S. illegally in the prior decade as the U.S.-Mexico Bracero guest worker program was being implemented and then fell apart at the seams.
Interestingly, the deportation program appears to have been designed to scare people away, notes the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA) in a 2010 article by Fred L. Koestler: "The forces used by the government were actually relatively small, perhaps no more than 700 men, but were exaggerated by border patrol officials who hoped to scare unauthorized workers into flight back to Mexico. Valley newspapers also exaggerated the size of the government forces for their own purposes: generally unfavorable editorials attacked the Border Patrol as an invading army seeking to deprive Valley farmers of their inexpensive labor force."
In other words, it was something of a head fake.
As for the number actually deported by the government in the operation, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) reported a little more than 80,000 apprehensions in all of Texas outside of El Paso and the Trans-Pecos. But, notes the TSHA article, "It is difficult to estimate the number of people forced to leave by the operation. The INS claimed as many as 1,300,000, though the number officially apprehended did not come anywhere near this total. The INS estimate rested on the claim that most undocumented immigrants, fearing apprehension by the government, had voluntarily repatriated themselves before and during the operation."
Meaning, the reported success of the program - with 94 percent of the INS-cited repatriations being voluntary although the actual number is unknown - hinged primarily on the deterrent effect.
Contrast that with the approach favored by the Obama administration, which is to grant legal status to some 4.5 million illegal immigrants with U.S.-born children, an action that was just struck down by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Doesn't the Obama program just incentivize more illegal immigrants to come and have children as a quick and easy way to flout the law?
As much as anything, the rule of law depends on public proclamations by the government that the law will be enforced, which is all Trump is really saying when he stood firm in the debate, stating, "We are a country of laws."
Better a president says that than that it's "just not possible." Isn't the president supposed to take an oath to faithfully execute the laws? Trump may be onto something.
So, perhaps Bush believes that the only way to deport illegal immigrants is to do so forcibly, and so cannot imagine how the goal might be achieved on that basis.
Yet, one thing the 1954 Eisenhower program might prove is that if the government simply openly pledges to deporting every single illegal immigrant - that is, to enforcing the law - and commits the resources necessary to federal, state, and local agencies to achieve that goal, the result could be that problem takes care of itself.
We won't know unless we try. With the current administration, the message is clear: The law will not be enforced.
Robert Romano is the senior editor of Americans for Limited Government.