The Devastating Economic Impact of Massive Deportation

March 25, 2024


  • A policy of massive deportation would be economically ruinous to North Carolinians
  • Undocumented residents of North Carolina are overwhelmingly in the workforce
  • Large swaths of our state economy are highly reliant on undocumented labor


As in election years past, many candidates for office are pushing immigration policy to the fore in this year’s political campaigns. As a highly polarizing issue that primarily energizes voters on the right, it’s no surprise that immigration is a frequent platform plank for many North Carolina politicians, incumbents and the aspiring alike. So, too, for former President Donald Trump, who has vowed to carry out a massive, highly militarized campaign deporting undocumented immigrants if he is once again elected president: “the largest domestic deportation operation in American history,” in his own words.

Immigration is a complicated issue that is wholly decided, of course, at the federal level, not in Raleigh. But the consequences of such a massive deportation operation would be greatly felt across North Carolina – and the pain would be acute. While the emotional and intangible loss would be devastating – like families torn apart, and longtime residents, friends, neighbors and coworkers removed from their homes by force – these are impossible to quantify in numbers. The economic impacts, however, are not. Carolina Forward has analyzed this economic impact to paint a vivid, data-driven picture of what Trump’s vowed deportation campaign might mean for North Carolina.

In short, a campaign of forcible deportation would be devastating for North Carolina’s economy, raising consumer prices across the board, kneecapping many small businesses, and blowing a large fiscal hole in our state budget.

Basic facts

Due to the nature of the undocumented population, exact descriptive figures of the population are unknowable. But reliable estimates nevertheless obtain: approximately 350,000 undocumented immigrants live in North Carolina in 2024. To arrive at this figure, we draw on independent estimates from credible organizations like the Migration Policy Institute (296,000) and Pew Research (325,000), with small extrapolations to the present year.

Of these, according to the Migration Policy Institute, approximately 77% of undocumented residents are from Mexico and Central America. 67% have lived in the United States for more than a decade; 1 in 5 have lived here for more than 20 years. 45% are married, and 10% are married to a U.S. citizen. 25% have some college education, and 15% hold a bachelor’s degree. 33% (97,000) own a home.

Another big fact that jumps out about undocumented residents: they are overwhelmingly active in our workforce. Undocumented residents are highly likely to be of working age: 73% are between 25 and 54 years old. Of those 16 years old and older, 72% are actively in the labor force, which is a labor force participation rate far higher than North Carolina’s overall population (60% in January of 2024).

This last part is highly relevant when it comes to considering the potential economic fallout of massive deportation.

The economic harm of deportation

Among the large majority of North Carolina’s undocumented residents who are working already, the biggest chunk of them – a full third (32%) – are working in construction, or about 60,000 people in total. A 2023 report from the NC Department of Commerce, which included both legal and undocumented immigrants, found the same thing, with 29% of all immigrant workers engaged in construction. According to the Associated General Contractors of America, there were 249,300 people employed in construction in North Carolina in mid-2023. This would mean that as many as 1 out of every 4 people working in construction in North Carolina could be undocumented. Even if one allows for more variability in these estimates, it’s clear that the state’s construction industry is extremely reliant on these workers. The AGC report also points out – as anyone who has talked with any construction or contracting firm can easily confirm – that contractors are struggling today to hire and retain workers, most especially skilled tradesmen.

And then, there is agriculture. One of North Carolina’s biggest industries, the agriculture industry is wholly reliant on immigrant labor – some authorized, and many not. The USDA’s Economic Research Service has previously found that nearly half of all farmworkers in America are undocumented.

In the meatpacking industry, the numbers are even more stark. More than 70% of meatpacking workers in America are non-citizens, according to the Economic Policy Institute – and this includes a very large number of undocumented workers. In North Carolina, hog and poultry processors have exactly the same experience.

It doesn’t take an economics degree to predict what would happen to the cost of housing, food and meat in North Carolina (and the nation at large) if 25% of construction workers and 50% of agricultural workers were suddenly deported. The total prospective economic harm is literally incalculable.

Other impacts of deportation

A significant body of research, including from conservative think tanks, has firmly established that undocumented immigrants commit fewer crimes than the natural-born Americans. In fact, according to criminologists who have carefully examined national evidence on the issue, communities with more immigrants (both legal and not) tend to have less crime, especially violent crime.

Graph from “Quiet Contributors: The economic impact of undocumented immigrants to North Carolina communities.” Click for more.

Immigrants as a whole, both authorized and not, also have a strongly positive economic impact in other ways. These workers pay taxes, and largely do not consume the same public services other Americans do. Undocumented immigrants are ineligible to receive federally-funded benefits like Medicaid, Medicare or CHIP coverage, though a few (12) states have expanded state-funded benefits to certain classes of undocumented residents too. Contrary to bombastic claims that circulate on social media, undocumented immigrants do not receive housing benefits, Social Security or SNAP (food stamps).

For more on the tax contribution of undocumented immigrants in North Carolina, see our policy brief, Quiet Contributors: The economic impact of undocumented immigrants to North Carolina communities.

Nevertheless, immigrants – again, both legal and not – still pay taxes, and in so doing, contribute to supporting those very systems. This is one reason why the Congressional Budget Office has found that immigration will grow the U.S. GDP by $7 trillion over the next ten years. Even the conservative CATO Institute agrees that immigrants contribute more tax revenue on a net basis than native-born Americans, to both federal and state/local governments. This finding is replicated by multiple independent studies.

Of course, not everything comes down to dollars and cents. Immigrants – legal and undocumented – are also deeply interwoven into North Carolina’s communities, culture and traditions. But on the dimension of dollars and cents, undocumented immigrants are also a powerful contributor to our state’s economy and overall standard of living. A program of massive, militarized deportation would be ruinous to the pocketbooks and quality of life to virtually every North Carolinian.

Instead, policymakers might look for inspiration to former President Ronald Reagan, and the landmark pathway to citizenship policy he signed into law in 1986. Reagan’s example shows us how America can combine a disciplined and responsible border control policy with humane and growth-oriented treatment of the women, men and families who look to the United States of America as a haven of hope and an opportunity to turn their hard work into a future.

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