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Self-deportation to be a naive immigration policy

5 mins read

The attractive rhetoric about America being the land of opportunity ceases to function once politicians, particularly Republicans, contend that the way to combat illegal immigration and staggering population growth is self-deportation.

Yet that is exactly the stance Mitt Romney has chosen to take on the issue of illegal immigration. At a January GOP debate in Tampa, the presidential candidate was asked how illegal immigrants would be returned to their countries of origin without an aggressive federal deportation initiative:

“Well, the answer is self-deportation, which is people decide that they can do better by going home because they can’t find work here because they don’t have legal documentation to allow them to work here. And so we’re not going to round people up,” Romney said.

Besides cognitive dissonance, there is no real and pragmatic way to believe in the co-existence of the United States as the absolute purveyor of liberty, equality and constitutionalism and a place where the policy-makers make life so hard for immigrants that they eventually choose to leave. But that’s the line of argumentation Romney has chosen to adopt in promoting “attrition through enforcement,” and the one on which Former Speaker and candidate Newt Gingrich and Sen. John McCain rightly criticized as both naïve and inhumane — an “Obama-level fantasy,” Gingrich called it.

Not only is there a fundamental failure in upholding certain distinct American values that are inherent to the (purported) open nature of our society, but there is also an even greater negligence of the families that are torn apart by this deportation policy. Illegal immigrants have established their roots in this country by way of children, and to make life so difficult for them is to make life equally, if not more, difficult for their extended, and legal, family. Unless you buy the claim made by hard-liners on the right that illegal immigrants have babies on American soil as a part of a plot to sponsor them for green cards.

Moreover, self-deportation doesn’t necessarily achieve the ends it sets out to meet through punitive state-level laws (which include increased conventional enforcement, like arrests and deportations, and the extended use of verification of legal status at access points to services like public schools and medical care). If the idea is that this sort of legislation would make living in this country so unpleasant and miserable for illegal immigrants that they choose to leave, it loses its cogency when there is a concern that all that it inevitably does is push unauthorized workers into the informal sector. Backing workers into a corner in this way only serves to encourage the exploitation and abuse that exists in the underground economy.

The problem with illegal immigration is that it cannot be solved through some tenuous variation of self-incrimination. It can’t be solved through what amounts to passive-aggressive government abuse, or through the subversion of our supposedly tolerant national ideologies. Illegal immigration is the product of a broken system and a particular class of politicians who cater to American Exceptionalism and xenophobia through sound-bite ready slogans.

We can begin to fix this problem when we (as an informed and engaged populace) reconcile ourselves to the reality of illegal immigrants in our country — their presence cannot be reversed as easily as presidential candidates would like us to believe. Following this, judicious reform can take place through strict — not noxious — enforcement policies and, ultimately, a path to legalization for the 11-12 million undocumented people who live here.

Our primary concern, and the concerns of our potential leaders, should not be to make conditions in this country so bad that illegal immigrants self-deport, but to create circumstances, those that would honor American values, in which they realize their self-worth.

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