Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's line during last night's debate in Florida about "self-deportation" has drawn its share of attention (and cracks) by now, but the concept he's talking about isn't a novel one. Though whether it really works as intended is another question.
Questioned about what he'd do with undocumented immigrants if he doesn't plan to round them up and deport them, Romney talked about making it impossible for them to get jobs, referencing the federal E-Verify status-check tool used by some employers (and which some states have made mandatory). The idea would be to make life so difficult for undocumented immigrants that they would leave of their own volition, a concept known as "attrition through enforcement," which advocates of tighter immigration restrictions have supported for years.
It's this concept that lies at the heart of Arizona's SB 1070 and similarly strict state laws enacted in other states recently, including laws with an E-Verify component. Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and attorney (and recent Romney backer) who helped draft SB 1070 and similar laws, wrote about attrition through enforcement as an alternative to mass deportations several years ago in a law journal. The article begins:
For years, the public debate about illegal immigration has been gripped by a false dichotomy. We have been told that there are only two choices in addressing the fact that twelve to twenty million aliens are unlawfully present in the United States: either attempt to round them up and remove them all, or grant a massive amnesty and provide all (or virtually all) illegal aliens legal status.
In a piece in Mother Jones related to Romney's statement, Adam Serwer cites another years-old take on the concept from the immigration-restriction advocacy think tank Center for Immigration Studies and how the "choke points" it refers to have been applied at the state level:
We can see how this concept has been applied in states like Arizona and Alabama, where local authorities have been empowered to act as enforcers of immigration law. Alabama takes the "choke point" theory even more seriously than Arizona—everything from enrolling in school to seeking health treatment has been turned into a so-called "choke-point."
The piece also cites an interview with Kobach in which he refers to self-deportation as what's been occurring in Alabama, where unauthorized immigrants have left the state in the wake of its recently enacted anti-illegal immigration law, prompting a labor shortage in the farm industry.
But is what's happening in fact self-deportation, or are people going elsewhere in the U.S.? While undocumented immigrants are indeed leaving states like Alabama and Georgia, both of which have enacted tough measures with an E-Verify component, there's still no hard evidence of an exodus from the country, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, which each year tracks the estimated undocumented population. Pew's studies have shown that this population has declined significantly since 2007, when it peaked at around 12 million, but attribute it more to a steep decline in entries, noting that undocumented immigrants are tending to stay long-term.
From one recent Pew report:
The rising share of unauthorized immigrants who have been in the U.S. for a long duration reflects the fact that the sharpest growth in this population occurred during the late 1990s and early 2000s—and that the inflow has slowed down significantly in recent years, as the U.S. economy has sputtered and border enforcement has tightened. It also reflects the fact that relatively few long-duration unauthorized immigrants have returned to their countries of origin.
In any case, Romney's remark is making the rounds. Some of the attention on Twitter has been of the less-serious sort, especially given Romney's familial ties to Mexico. The Romney parody Twitter alter-ego @Mexican Mitt tweeted: "I'M SELF DEPORTING TO MY RANCHO, for the VICTORY PARTY! Ajuua!"
And fans of self-described "noted Hispanic self-deportationist" Daniel D. Portado (@DanielDportado) tweeted out links to a comic gem from the vault of This American Life in which Ira Glass interviewed D. Portado about - what else - his "self-deportation" movement.
During last night's debate, D. Portado tweeted: "I invented Self Deportation, please remember this on your way out."