Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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What’s Wrong With Romney’s “Self-Deportation” Plan

by Shannon K. O'Neil
January 25, 2012

Republican presidentical candidate Romney speaks as Gingrich listens during the Republican presidential candidates debate in Tampa (Scott Audette/Courtesy Reuters).


During Monday’s Republican presidential debate, Mitt Romney put forth his plan for dealing with illegal immigration: self-deportation. Here is how the exchange went:

Debate Moderator Adam Smith: Governor Romney there’s one thing I am confused about, you say you don’t want to round people up and deport them but you also say that they would have to go back to their home countries, and then apply for citizenship. So if you don’t deport them, how do you send them home?

Governor Romney: Well the answer is self-deportation, which is people decide that they could 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.

Will this work? Unlikely. Lessons from Mexican migrants, which comprise more than half of the unauthorized  population and, the country closest and presumably the least costly for “self-deportation,” suggest otherwise. Studies show that during the 1970s and early 1980s, roughly one of every two migrants returned home within a year – and seventy-five percent left within two years – meaning most did in fact “self-deport.” The vast majority of Mexicans came not to settle, but to earn enough money to better their and their families’ lives at home. But this pattern – called circular migration by scholars – starting changing in the late 1980s (also when the United States began hardening its southern border). Today, fewer than one in ten immigrants return each year to Mexico.  Thirty odd years ago Romney’s policy of self-deportation occurred regularly, today it does not.

Romney says adding  stronger enforcement at the workplace (through E-Verify and other mechanisms), would encourage self-deportation again.  He explained this part of his strategy:

We have a card that indicates who’s here illegally, and if people are not able to have a card and have that, through an e-verify system determine that they are here illegally then they’re going to find they can’t get work here, and if people can’t get work here they’re going to self-deport to a place where they can get work.

Analyzing migration trends also cast doubt on these expectations. First, while the economic downturn has slowed those coming to the United States from Mexico, it hasn’t done much to send more home. This hints at the underlying reality for millions of America’s undocumented immigrants – they have deep roots in American society that go far beyond their jobs . As spouses, children, siblings, neighbors, customers, homeowners, and worshippers, they are intricately intertwined in America’s social fabric. They won’t voluntarily leave behind their families and their lives. Instead, the only way to change the status quo is through an immigration policy that sees unauthorized migrants for what they really are: an integral part of America’s social fabric.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Gary Vincent OMalley

    If we would fine and throw employers in jail for aiding and abetting aliens as is laid out in Nationalization Act Title 8, migration would occur. You cannot suspend natural laws. If the environment is worse here than home, home it will be for the majority. This always has been the case from Elephants, to cattle to humans. When the enviroment gets bad, they will leave. We don’t need to arrest 20 million illegals, just take the jobs and the goodies away.. if they can’t work, they can’t eat. Sorry, all the leftist theories in the world can’t suspend natural law. Even if you squeeze your eyes shut real tight and click your heels three times. .

  • Posted by McNabb

    Plain and simple, illegal immigration is a security issue not a social one. The great immigration debate with the statement, “but we ALL are immigrants” is true, and this is a country that was founded on immigrants. The great migrations of Irish and Italians during the mid-1800s and mid-1900s were important to the cultural diversity that makes up this great country, but they signed in on the dotted line at Ellis Island. We knew WHO they were to the best of modern technology could ascertain at the time. With asymmetric threats around the world and an invigorated focus on counter-terrorism we need to take a close look at the true security threat. The threat is the undocumented flow of persons and materials across our porous borders. Get out of the mindset that we are talking about Hispanic persons. We have Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Libyans, Iranians, and yes, Hispanics all coming across our borders. That runs the complete gambit of races, so anti-illegal immigration is not an attack on any one race. We, as a nation, need to enact a full revamp of our immigration policy. We need to address how to make legal immigration easer, how to secure the borders against penetration, and register and eventually issue guest worker visas to people here illegally. This “path” would allow additional revenue stream in the form of taxes paid by the workers as opposed to cash directly flowing out of the country. A reasonable timeframe needs to be issued for people to step forward and become registered (possibly a year or two), and then failure to comply needs to be met with standard imprisonment for period of time and then deportation. The incarceration needs to be billed to the nation the citizen is from; collected with tariffs on trade if necessary to offset the costs. The majority of persons in the country are decent hardworking people just trying to make their way in the world, but they need to “sign in” like everyone else.

  • Posted by Daniel Cameron Morris

    Exactly, Ms. O’Neil.
    Self-deportation and the whole idea of deportation is just ridiculous, except for hardened criminals. The amount of money spent on finding, jailing, and deporting illegal immigrants could be spent rooting out imported criminal gang elements…instead of chasing after farming, construction, food service, homecare, factory, and healthcare workers.
    Another reality is that industry does not want anything other than symbolic deportation. Why? Industry knows what happens with a mass “self deportation” as Romney proposes and was tried in Alabama?
    New housing starts would plummet, healthcare costs would explode, food costs higher for those who can least afford it, and manufactured goods in the United States would now completely disapear.
    Not sure how any one candidate could be any less pro-business and just lack any touch at all for how the national economy of the United States, and for that matter, all of Europe is run.

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