As we noted below, there’s a lot of conversation about Mitt Romney’s self-deportation policy. “This American Life,” the New York Times Lede blog and the Rachel Maddow show this week all put out pretty amusing historical pieces on the concept of self-deportation and its origins as a hysterical, satirical joke.
To jog your memory: Mitt Romney uttered the phrase a couple of weeks ago at a Florida debate, in response to a question about how he would get undocumented immigrants to leave the U.S. without ordering mass deportations. His answer:
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.
Since then, editorial boards, commentators, and organizations—including ours—have been hard at work trying to explain to people what self-deportation really means. “This American Life,” the Lede blog, and the Rachel Maddow show want to supplement with some historical context:
“It’s a joke!” Maddow says during her segment on the topic. “It’s satire.”
According to “This American Life”:
There is an argument to be made that the term self-deportation was invented in 1994 by two Mexican-American satirists, Lalo Alcaraz and Esteban Zul. That year, “sickened” by a ballot initiative known as Proposition 187, which aimed to prohibit illegal immigrants from using state-run hospitals and schools in California, the comedians began posing as conservative activists who backed the measure.
The comics called on all minorities in the state of California to follow Prop 187 to its natural conclusion and “self-deport.” They created a fictional “militant self-deportationist” called Daniel D. Portado (get it? D-port…) to be the face of their blowhard anti-immigrant positions. Forming a satirical group called “Hispanics for Wilson” (as in, then-California Governor Pete Wilson (R), who was pushing Prop 187), they offered to “retrain white collar workers and middle management in the agricultural, restaurant, and hotel maintenance arts, once illegal immigrants are displaced form these highly sought after fields.” And they vowed to get Hispanics to stop speaking Spanish, except for the words “adios, amigo.”
Some people, however, didn’t get the joke. Telemundo invited Daniel D. Portado on to give an interview as a proponent of Prop 187. Governor Pete Wilson himself began using the term “self-deport,” notably in a conversation with New York Times Op-Ed columnist William Safire.
“He used the exact phrase,” Maddow says in her segment. “This would be like Santorum launching a new campaign that said, ‘Google me!'”
It is of course difficult to trace the origin and usage of a phrase, but a Lede blog Nexis search says that Wilson’s interview with Safire was the first printed record of him using that term—two months after Alcaraz and Zul began popularizing it.
Which is still not to say that Mitt Romney and Kris Kobach’s brand of self-deportation can be traced back to this origin. As Maddow notes, Republican politics since the days of Prop 187 have grown ever more extreme. “Something is out of whack in Republican politics around this issue,” she says. “Republican politics on immigration right now are so strange it’s getting impossible to tell whether or not they are satire.”
Romney and Kobach’s concept of self-deportation is certainly not a joke: it’s led to a campaign of terror against Hispanics in Alabama and elsewhere (like Georgia and Arizona). But still, the history of the term and its beginnings as a colossal joke are noteworthy.