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The horrible contradiction at the heart of Donald Trump's immigration plan

Donald Trump wants all unauthorized immigrants out of the country. He’s said it before, and he said it again on Sunday to Chuck Todd of Meet the Press: "They have to go." But Trump also says he doesn’t want to split up unauthorized immigrants from their families. That is a real contradiction: Many of the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in this country have children who are US citizens.

Todd pressed Trump on this, asking him if his plan required deporting, alongside unauthorized immigrants, the children of those immigrants, even if those children are US citizens. Trump responded, "Chuck. No. No. We’re going to keep the families together, we have to keep the families together. But they have to go."

What is Trump actually saying here?

It's not clear, from Trump's answer, whether he's simply refusing to acknowledge the contradiction between "deport all unauthorized immigrants" and "keep families together," or if Trump's plan, as Todd suggested, is to reconcile that contradiction by deporting any children of unauthorized immigrants.

The former certainly seems possible; this wouldn't be the first time that Donald Trump offered an incoherent and internally contradictory policy plan. But so does the latter: Trump, after all, doesn't believe that the US should grant birthright citizenship to the children of unauthorized immigrants, so it's at least possible to imagine that he would like to deport those children.

It's important to stress that Trump has not explicitly called for deporting the children of unauthorized immigrants, even if those children are US citizens, en masse. But that's the logical conclusion of his plan to deport all unauthorized immigrants while also "keep[ing] the families together." That's why Todd asked about it: It's the only way the pieces of Trump's plan fit together.

Trump didn't say this was his plan, but he wouldn't quite deny it either. There are several ways to read this. Maybe Trump simply doesn't understand that this is the inevitable conclusion of his plan. Maybe President Trump would reconcile the contradiction by declining to deport unauthorized immigrants whose children are citizens. Maybe "we're going to keep the families together" is just a lie, and his plan is to deport unauthorized immigrants without their children.

But, as long as Trump refuses to clarify, it will be difficult to avoid at least the possibility that, as Todd suggested, his plan is to deport the children of unauthorized immigrants as well, even if those children are US citizens.

So what would that look like? Millions of American citizens live in families where at least one member is an unauthorized immigrant. Deporting all of those unauthorized immigrants without separating them from their families sounds like it means deporting their families alongside them. That would include as many as 4.5 million children who are full citizens of the United States. And that would be exactly as cruel and inhumane as it sounds.

Millions of children who are US citizens have unauthorized immigrant parents

As of 2010, 4.5 million US citizens under the age of 18 had at least one parent who was an unauthorized immigrant. (It's entirely possible that the number has changed as the unauthorized immigrant population has gotten more settled over the last few years.)

That likely includes an awful lot of American schoolkids. As of 2012, 6.9 percent of all students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade in the US had at least one unauthorized immigrant parent; 5.5 percent of all K-12 students were US citizens with at least one unauthorized immigrant parent. That's one out of every 18 school-age US citizens.

Separately, a 2008 study estimated that 400,000 adults who were legally present in the United States were members of families where at least one person was unauthorized. So in a large number of cases, deporting all unauthorized immigrants would mean breaking up families.

Either Trump does want to break up these families, or he wants to deport the entire families — US citizens and all — alongside the unauthorized immigrants.

The context here: Trump doesn't believe in birthright citizenship

There is something that helps explain how Trump could possibly think it was a good idea to call for the mass deportation of American children: He doesn't believe these children should have been born citizens anyway.

During his Meet the Press interview, he confirmed to Chuck Todd that he wants to get rid of birthright citizenship. Trump's logic was that "they have a baby, and all of a sudden nobody knows the baby's here." Ironically, the only place this could really be happening would be Texas, where the state is refusing to issue birth certificates to some unauthorized immigrant mothers — thus making it harder for them to claim citizenship for their children.

To eliminate birthright citizenship, President Trump would have to lead a successful effort to repeal or amend the 14th Amendment, or get the Supreme Court to reverse the 1898 case that affirmed that the 14th Amendment granted citizenship to anyone born in the US (as long as their parents weren't "foreign diplomats ... hostile occupying forces or on foreign public ships").

This would be difficult enough. But ending birthright citizenship wouldn't change the status of the millions of children in the US who are citizens and who have at least one parent who is unauthorized immigrant.

Does Trump hope the kids will leave on their own? Because that's wrong, as well.

If President Trump isn't going to deport these millions of kids or strip them of citizenship, maybe he just hopes that if he deports unauthorized immigrant parents, their US citizen children will leave with them. But there is a lot of evidence to indicate that, no, they wouldn't.

Parents who are deported, or are at risk of being deported, often work hard to find a way for their kids to stay in the US under other care. In 2011, when an Alabama law cracking down on unauthorized immigrants went into effect, many terrified parents drew up "power of attorney" letters stating that if they were detained or deported, a trusted friend or relative would become the legal guardian of their children.

When parents haven't made plans in advance, their children can simply end up in foster care here in the US. A 2011 study found that 5,100 children were in foster care who'd had a parent detained or deported. The study estimated that if deportations continued for five more years at their 2011 pace, 15,000 children would end up in foster care after parental detention or deportation.

In 2011, the pace of deportation was roughly 400,000 a year. It's reasonable to assume that if deportations were closer to 11 million, we'd be talking about a lot more children in foster care.

Insisting that these things are easy just makes it clear how hard they really are

Any way you slice it, this is inhumane. But it raises important questions about just how far Trump, and people who support him, would be willing to go to "deal with" unauthorized immigration.

Does Trump feel that millions of children should be stripped of their American citizenship? Does he feel that communities should be responsible for taking care of US citizen children who are left behind after their parents are detained or deported? Or does he feel that even though children of unauthorized immigrants are Americans by birth, and are being educated in American schools, they are at heart so un-American that it's okay to expel them en masse to places they've never known?

These are hard questions. Many Republican politicians, and millions of Americans, believe that there is no morally acceptable way to give unauthorized immigrants legal status in the US.

But there's a lot of room for disagreement among these groups about how hard the US should work to force out unauthorized immigrants. Is mass deportation the only effective solution, or should America try something closer to "attrition through enforcement" (otherwise known as "self-deportation")? At what point does the effort and cost required to track down 11 million people become more trouble than it's worth? Should children born in the US to unauthorized immigrants be treated as Americans, or as "anchor babies," and what are the implications of that?

Donald Trump does not acknowledge that these are hard questions. When asked about them, as he was on Meet the Press, he typically dodges, asserting that other politicians are incompetent managers and that he is uniquely equipped to make this work. But the good news is that these questions are getting asked to begin with. And the more ridiculously Trump asserts that they're easy, the more clearly he throws into relief just how hard they are.

VIDEO: Donald Trump on immigration