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Mitt Romney Talks “Self-Deportation”; More About What that Really Means

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mitt romney self deportSince Monday night’s GOP primary debate in Tampa, Florida, the blogosphere has been buzzing over two words that Mitt Romney said in regards to immigration: “self deportation.”

Specifically, Romney was answering a question about how he planned to get undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. to leave the country, considering that he has pledged not to order mass deportations as president:

The answer is self-deportation, which is people decide 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.  [You can watch the video here.]

The audience tittered, and Twitter promptly lit up with sarcastic responses.  But there has been confusion as to what “self-deportation” actually means, which is what we’re hoping to further clear up today.

Here’s what self-deportation is: it’s finding a way, any way, to get millions of undocumented immigrants to remove themselves from the U.S.

Here’s why: despite how popular the “deport ‘em all” rhetoric is in certain circles, it would be a logistical and humanitarian nightmare to ever try and forcibly evict 11 million immigrants from their homes.  Eleven million is how many people live in the states of Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska, South Dakota, Delaware, Montana, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, Hawaii, Idaho, and Nebraska combined.  These immigrants speak English; they have American family members, American friends, American roots, American lives.  Romney’s alternative to forcibly deporting them involves making life so miserable that they “self deport” themselves.

Here’s how: attrition.  By any means necessary, Romney and his anti-immigrant cohorts want to make life in America simply intolerable for undocumented immigrants.  Deny them work, withhold driver’s licenses, threaten to separate families, step up enforcement, obstruct children’s access to schools, bar landlords from renting to them, deny them access to heat and water—these aren’t theoretical ideas, they’re components of anti-immigrant policy in places like Alabama.  As one of the original sources of the whole “self-deportation” concept, extremist Mark Krikorian, explains: “The objective is not mainly to identify illegal aliens for arrest (though that will always be a possibility) but rather to make it as difficult as possible for illegal aliens to live a normal life here.”

Who cares if some of these policies are, quite frankly, disgusting and inhumane?  As The New Republic wrote sarcastically last year: “If we want to get rid of them, we are going to have to make their lives unbearable, even if it means forfeiting basic American values of equality and human dignity.”

This morning in an interview with Univision, Newt Gingrich only had disparaging remarks for Romney’s proposed “self-deportation” policy:

How close are you to breaking up laughing out loud?  I think you have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and automatic — you know, $20 million a year of no work — to have a fantasy this far from reality.  For Romney to believe that somebody’s grandmother is going to be so cut off that she is going to self deport…He certainly shows no concern for the humanity of people who are already here.

The reaction was similarly scathing across the blogosphere.  From the Latin American Herald Tribune:

Romney has made it clear that if he wins the Republican nomination and then the November election, he would support a “purge” of millions of immigrant families, as demanded by the ultra-right wing of the Republican Party…With a policy like this, a Romney victory is the dream of anti-immigrant groups like NumbersUSA and Republican leaders including Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has been the invisible hand behind laws in Arizona and Alabama that seek to tighten the noose around undocumented migrants.

From diarist Brownmansburden at Daily Kos:

Make no mistake, this is signaling more attacks on immigrants with an escalation of punitive measures like the ones currently in place in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, etc.  Is enforcement through attrition how America wants to deal with this issue? Are we comfortable with looking back at this in the future and saying ‘we harassed everyone out of the country’?  Self-deportation seems like a dangerous bet for civil liberties and because it will lead immigrants further into lawlessness.  Serious conversations about solutions must be had, but the current political discourse is not conducive.  The GOP is not naive, or out of touch about immigration, as some have described it. We are witnessing well-planned attacks on immigrants, and the current toxic debate on the issue is not accidental.

From Clara Jeffrey at Mother Jones:

Anti-immigration advocates like this [the idea of self-deportation] for several reasons: It has a free-market/free will gloss to it. It purports to save money on deportation costs. And, most importantly, because it relies on states enforcing immigration via passing draconian laws rather than federal law enforcement/border efforts. It’s a conservative trifecta!

And from Adam Serwer, also at Mother Jones:

While “self-deportation” might sound like something you don’t want your parents to catch you doing, it’s actually an old euphemism for an immigration strategy of “attrition through enforcement.”

This approach is notable for its complete lack of discretion and flexibility. Unauthorized immigrant parents with citizen children who need to go to school? Americans who are married to an undocumented immigrant who needs medical treatment? “Self-deportation” hits them all with the same mailed fist. 

But make no mistake, when Romney is discussing “self-deportation,” he’s talking about creating a United States where parents are afraid to register their kids for school or get them immunized because they might be asked for proof of citizenship. He’s talking about the type of country where local police can demand your immigration status based on mere suspicion that you don’t belong around here. “Self-deportation” is just a cleaner, less cruel-sounding way of endorsing harsh, coercive government policies in order to make life for unauthorized immigrants so unbearable that they have no choice but to find some way to leave. The human cost of such an approach, let alone what it might do to American society, is viewed as a price worth paying.

Finally, the New York Times’ Caucus blog questioned how effective even extreme tactics would be:

Both Arizona and Alabama saw some declines in numbers of illegal immigrants after the laws took effect. But it not clear from census data that illegal immigrants have voluntarily left the United States, despite five years of tough enforcement, with more deportations under the Obama administration than at any time since the 1950s. While far fewer immigrants are coming to the United States illegally, the Pew Hispanic Center has found, there is no evidence of an exodus.

There is, however, something of a humorous lining to all of this.  The satiric website selfdeport.org has been around since last year, but has been making the rounds again this week in the wake of Romney’s comments.  The group, Patriots for Self-Deportation, treats undocumented immigration as a sort of legacy crime whereby the children of undocumented immigrants are also considered undocumented immigrants (despite the 14th amendment).  Since the U.S. actually has a long history of undocumented immigration (stretching back to the 1800s, despite what the anti-immigrant activists like to say about their ancestors coming here “legally”), the Patriots for Self-Deportation are calling for all Americans who cannot concretely prove that their ancestors came here legally to self-deport.  “If you can’t prove you belong here, REPATRIATE!” goes their rallying cry.  Perhaps this won’t immediately lead to the likes of Romney and Gingrich rooting around their family attics for papers, but considering how President Obama continues to be dogged by birtherism—why not?

For even more about what “self-deportation” really means, check out our report: “‘Attrition through Enforcement’: Just Another Name for Mass Deportation”.