Self-Deportation: A Reality, or Are We Kidding Ourselves?

Hanes & Bartels Feb. 24, 2012

Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney made news recently by expressing his opinion that if the United States concentrated on enforcement of current immigration laws, undocumented immigrants would “self-deport.” In other words, Governor Romney appears to believe that the estimated 11 million (some estimate as high as 15 million) undocumented immigrants would just leave if they are unable to access basic needs such as work and housing.

As expected, Governor Romney’s comments caused intensely controversial debate on the topic. In her February 6, 2012 report titled “Discrediting ‘Self Deportation’ as Immigration Policy”, Michele Waslin, Ph.D., the Senior Research Analyst at the Immigration Policy Center, stated that even though Governor Romney’s comment have brought the issue back to center stage, the concept of self-deportation is not a new one. Dr. Waslin explained that the idea is centered on the strategy of making life so inhospitable for unauthorized immigrants that they will leave on their own, which Dr. Waslin refers to as “attrition through enforcement.”

The most highly publicized examples of such laws include Alabama’s HB 56 and Arizona’s SB 1070, both of which are aimed at enabling state law enforcement officers to inquire into an individual’s immigration status at the time of a stop, and then to determine whether there is reasonable suspicion to believe that the individual is an illegal immigrant. The reality of such laws, according to Dr. Waslin, is that they do nothing to truly address national immigration problems, but instead place “unprecedented legal, fiscal, and economic burdens on states and local communities.”

According to the Washington Post Editorial Board, the attrition through enforcement strategy fails to take into consideration the realities of the immigration situation in America. For example, the Washington Post reports that undocumented workers comprise more than 5 percent of America’s labor force, and a much higher percentage of agricultural, hospitality, and landscaping workers. Therefore, a sudden loss of that segment of the labor population would significantly impact the American economy.

The Washington Post also contends that nearly two-thirds of the undocumented immigrants have been in the United States for more than a decade, and more than a quarter for more than 15 years. Under these circumstances, the immigrants have firmly established roots in the U.S. not only in employment, but also with churches, schools, friends, families, and other community organizations. Finally, the Post explained that millions of U.S. citizen children have been born to undocumented immigrants. Those children have rights equal to all other U.S.-born citizens, making it highly unlikely that they would “self-deport” along with their parents. Therefore, to suggest that undocumented immigrants would voluntarily choose to “self-deport” is to suggest that many would willingly leave behind children, not knowing if and when they would ever be re-united.

What is our experience in Colorado? Do we believe that strictly enforcing immigration laws, or even enacting a few “extras” of our own, will cause self-deportation as Governor Romney predicted? Or is this just yet another political tag-line that has gained some traction with politicians who continue to put off the real solutions that our country’s immigration system truly needs?