Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney touched off a spirited debate over immigration policy during the 2012 Republican presidential primaries when he suggested that self-deportation might be one way to deal with the country’s population of 11 million undocumented residents.
The idea of immigrants “self-deporting” themselves has been around for years.
The term comes up in immigration court proceedings when people who are illegally in the country voluntarily agree to leave. The motivation could be to avoid government intervention and forced deportation, or it could be to avoid prosecution for more serious offenses than immigration violations.
Self-deportation can be more passive, too. A worker who is here illegally could just decide to return to his homeland if he loses his job and the economic incentive to stay disappears. Untold thousands of undocumented workers routinely self-deport because they simply run out of work.
What Romney was talking about, however, was a way for government to encourage self-deportation on a grand scale. This is the motivation that has led a number of states to pass highly restrictive immigration laws that are aimed at driving undocumented immigrants away.
“We’re not going to round people up,” Romney said in January during the Republican primary. “The answer is self-deportation.”
Arizona provided the model for oppressive lawmaking when it passed Senate Bill 1070 in 2010, legislation that gave local police broad powers to enforce immigration law and imposed penalties on people who provided assistance to undocumented residents.
Alabama followed by passing a more restrictive version of the Arizona law that included provisions involving the public schools. Georgia, Indiana, Utah and South Carolina also have passed their own immigration laws.
In 2011, the Obama administration filed suit to challenge the states’ authority to write immigration laws, arguing that immigration regulation is a responsibility that belongs solely to the federal government.
But unquestionably, the spate of state laws has had an impact in promoting self-deportation. Undocumented immigrants have left the states with the restrictive laws. Some immigrants have moved to other states that were more hospitable but many have returned to their homelands.
Proponents of the “self-deportation” concept often refer to it as “attrition through enforcement.” The architect behind the policy is Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and an adviser to the Romney campaign.
A favorite of the Tea Party, Kobach helped write the Arizona law and has consulted on most of the other state laws that followed. He works as an attorney with the Immigration Reform Law Institute, an organization that has challenged the American Civil Liberties Union and other immigrant advocate groups in the courts.
Kobach believes that if law enforcement makes the lives of undocumented immigrants miserable enough, they will self-deport themselves to other places.
Critics say the approach is unrealistic with a population of 11 million undocumented residents. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who opposed Romney during the Republican primaries, argued that many undocumented immigrants have lived in the country for decades and aren’t going to move out no matter what.
"We're not going to walk in there and grab a grandmother out and then kick them out," Gingrich said during the campaign. "You have to be realistic in your indignation."
Critics argue that about two-thirds of the illegal immigrants have lived here for more than a decade, have put down roots and aren’t willing to leave on their own. About 5.5 million children who were born here and are U.S. citizens are linked to the illegal population. Breaking up these families is not good for the country or anyone, critics argue.
One of the negative consequences of the self-deportation strategy is that the country drives away the workers it needs to run the economy. Undocumented workers make up roughly 5% of the U.S. labor force, and many of them do jobs that U.S. citizens don’t want.
Who will work the farm fields, do the landscaping and work in the hotels and restaurants if immigrants are driven away? A study of Alabama’s immigration law found that the state’s economy has suffered since restrictions went in place.