tags: , , America’s Voice Research on Immigration Reform

Report: “‘Attrition through Enforcement’: Just Another Name for Mass Deportation”

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When it comes to immigration reform, most Americans support a comprehensive policy that requires undocumented immigrants to register with the government and pay taxes on their way to earning full U.S. citizenship, includes smart enforcement measures and updates our nation’s immigration laws to ensure that we don’t end up with another broken immigration system in the future. This combined approach is also favored by both the business community and organized labor as the only practical way to get a handle on the broken immigration system, expand the tax base, and level the playing field for all.

However, the hard-line anti-immigrant lobby and their champions in Congress—such as the new leaders of the House Judiciary Committee, Reps. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Elton Gallegly (R-CA) and Steve King (R-IA)—are adamantly opposed to comprehensive immigration reform.  They believe that the 11 million undocumented people living in the United States today should be offered only one option: get out.

“Attrition through enforcement” is the name they have devised for a basket of policies that are designed to achieve the goal of mass deportation on the sly.  First articulated by Mark Krikorian, director of the anti-immigrant group the Center for Immigration Studies, the policy has been steadily advanced in the Congress by Reps. Smith, Gallegly and King.

In this report, America’s Voice Education Fund uncovers the “attrition through enforcement” doctrine’s genesis; its radical goal to achieve the mass removal of millions of immigrants; and the impact this proposal would have on both our economy and politics. 

 Two Sides of the Same Coin: Mass Deportation and Attrition through Enforcement

The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) claims credit for “first articulating” [1] the doctrine of “attrition through enforcement” in a 2005 paper written by CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian called “Downsizing Illegal Immigration: A Strategy of Attrition Through Enforcement.” [2]  The doctrine is a radical theory that incorporates a set of policy recommendations long advocated by the anti-immigrant lobby to remove the undocumented immigrant population from the United States.

The attrition doctrine was described as a way to avoid a moral outcry over televised roundups of millions of people, and deal with the prohibitive costs of a government-sponsored mass deportation effort by forcing immigrants to pay for their own deportation.  According to the anti-immigrant group Numbers USA, “[t]here is no need for taxpayers to watch the government spend billions of their dollars to round up and deport illegal aliens; they will buy their own bus or plane tickets back home if they can no longer earn a living here.” [3]  The end goals of “attrition” and “mass deportation” are unmistakably the same.

In his 2005 paper, Krikorian predicted these policies would “bring about a steady reduction in the total number of illegal immigrants who are living in the United States. The result would be a shrinking of the illegal population to a manageable nuisance.” [4]

The doctrine was not created, as proponents claim today, as a way to solve the nation’s jobs crisis.  In fact, Krikorian’s 2005 paper was published at a time of historically low unemployment. [5]

Roy Beck, director of the CIS’s sister advocacy organization NumbersUSA, was even more blunt about the doctrine’s intended effects.  In January 2008, when then-presidential candidate Mike Huckabee signed Beck’s pledge to “fully implement enforcement measures that, over time, will lead to the attrition of our illegal immigrant population,” [6] Beck wrote that “Governor Huckabee understands his pledge to mean that: 1) the 12 million illegal aliens now here will have to go home.” [7]

Krikorian’s paper described a combination of policies, many of which have been systematically put into place by the Republican leadership of the House Judiciary Committee, and the rest of which are being proposed for the 112th Congress.  His attrition doctrine would “combine an increase in conventional enforcement — arrests, prosecutions, deportations, asset seizures, etc. — with expanded use of verification of legal status at a variety of important points, to make it as difficult and unpleasant as possible to live here illegally.” [8]

In addition to forced deportations, Krikorian argued that “additional measures would be needed to promote self-deportation”: “firewalls…that people could pass through only if their legal status is verified.”  The primary example of such a “firewall” is the implementation of a mandatory E-Verify policy which would “require proof of legal status before starting a job.”

Marcus Epstein, a former speechwriter for noted anti-immigrant former Congressman Tom Tancredo (and who was convicted in 2009 of assaulting an African American woman while screaming racial epithets), [9] called E-Verify “perhaps the key component of the attrition strategy.” [10]

Epstein went on to acknowledge that mass deportation and “attrition through enforcement” are simply two sides of the same coin.  He wrote, “’Mass deportation’ is the ultimate attrition strategy. The proper goal of policy is to remove the illegal aliens from the country and make sure that no more come in. Attrition may very well help perform that purpose.” [11](emphasis in the original)

“Attrition” is Designed to Expel Immigrants, Not Help American Workers

With the nation in economic crisis, Reps. Smith, Gallegly, and King, along with their allies at anti-immigrant organizations, have put a new coat of paint on their “attrition” agenda to make it seem less extreme.  But a quick look at the history of the agenda, and the records of the people who are pushing it, reveals that they are simply taking advantage of the nation’s jobs problem to recast their anti-immigration agenda.

In January 2011, the unemployment rate was 9.0%. [12] But when Krikorian wrote his original memo, in May 2005, unemployment in the United States was at 5.1%–the lowest unemployment rate the country had seen since September 2001. [13]  In 2005, Krikorian even admitted that part of the rationale for gradual “attrition” of millions of undocumented workers, rather than rapid expulsion, was to allow employers to gradually adjust to the “economic disruption” and “difficulties” their industries would suffer by losing their workforce. [14]

As revealed in the America’s Voice Education Fund report “The Anti-Worker Truth About the Republican House Judiciary Committee,” the concern Reps. Smith, Gallegly and King profess to feel for American workers when it comes to immigration doesn’t manifest itself in their voting records on policies to help American workers succeed.  All three have earned a lifetime grade of F from the AFL-CIO. [15]

Putting Americans back to work has never been the top priority of the architects of the attrition-through-enforcement doctrine, though you might not know it by reading their press releases today.  Clearly, there gropus are motivated by a desire to remove immigrants from the country, and they take advantage of the problem of the day to try to sell their mass deportation agenda.

The directors of the Center for Immigration Studies, NumbersUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, [16] have all worked for white nationalist John Tanton, and Tanton played an instrumental role in the creation of each of the groups.  The extreme views of the leaders are well documented, and their actions point to consistent themes of casting immigrants in a negative light and advancing policies that would force them to leave.  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Tanton has, “worried that [Latinos] were outbreeding whites. At one point, he wrote candidly that to maintain American culture, ‘a European-American majority’ is required.”

Implementing the Mass Deportation Agenda

In 2005, House Republicans passed a bill that took the attrition doctrine to an entirely new level.  The centerpiece of their immigration enforcement bill, H.R. 4437, made it an “aggravated felony” to be in the United States without legal documents.  The legislation also made it a crime for anyone to “assist” someone who was an undocumented immigrant.

The bill sparked a moral outcry from many Americans, including pastors and others in the faith community, who were appalled that giving Communion to parishioners without asking them about their immigration status could become a criminal act.  As Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony wrote in a letter to President Bush, “It is staggering for the federal government to stifle our spiritual and pastoral outreach to the poor, and to impose penalties for doing what our faith demands of us.” [17]  While the bill passed the House just in time for the 2006 mid-term campaign season, it did not become law because the Senate took a very different, comprehensive approach and House Republicans refused to negotiate with the upper chamber.

Following the failure of their signature piece of legislation in 2006, House Republicans—foremost among them Reps. Smith, King and Gallegly—formed a solid wall of opposition to the Senate’s efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform on a bipartisan basis.  The reason for their opposition was that the comprehensive bills also included a requirement that undocumented immigrants regularize their immigration status—anathema to Smith, King, Gallegly, and the anti-immigrant lobby’s goal of removing immigrants from America.

When Republicans took back the House in the 2010 elections, Representative Elton Gallegly (R-CA) was named chairman of the House Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement.  The move was seen as an attempt to sidestep the public relations challenge of handing the gavel to the panel’s former ranking Member, the notorious Rep. Steve King of Iowa.  But while Gallegly lacks King’s penchant for sound bites, making life unbearable for undocumented immigrants—especially undocumented-immigrant children—who are already in this country has been his top priority throughout his Congressional career.

Gallegly opened his second hearing as subcommittee chairman with a statement he has used before: “The way to solve the problem of illegal immigration is fairly simple. First, we must enforce our laws and secure the border. Second, we must remove the magnets that encourage illegal immigration. And finally, we must remove the benefits that make it easy for them to stay.” [18]

And the panel’s Vice Chairman, Representative Steve King, has long warned that the “invasion” of undocumented immigrants poses an existential threat to America; “It is understandable and predictable,” he wrote in 2006, that Texas could again be called “Coachuila y Tejas.” [19]  King, too, has endorsed a “policy of attrition” to shrink the current undocumented population: he wrote in a Washington Times op-ed in 2007 that “Vigorous enforcement of our current immigration laws will substantially decrease the illegal-immigrant population over time…The Center for Immigration Studies has concluded that a policy of vigorous enforcement would cut the illegal immigrant population in half in just five years.” [20]

Mass Deportation Policies Have Cost Billions and Haven’t Worked

The politicians now peddling the “attrition through enforcement” agenda—Reps. Smith, Gallegly, and King—would have the public believe that no serious attempt to crack down on undocumented immigration has ever been made. Nothing could be further from the truth. While the theory of “attrition through enforcement” as a way to get all undocumented immigrants out of the country wasn’t articulated until the anti-immigrant movement came up with it in 2005, these politicians have been pushing these same policies since the 1990s.

in 1996, Rep. Smith was the architect of a series of crackdowns designed to make life harder for both legal and undocumented immigrants, chief among them the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). His colleague, Rep. Gallegly, was not satisfied with the harsh measures Congress was already taking, and proposed an amendment to IIRIRA that was the federal version of California’s notorious Proposition 187.  The Gallegly amendment would have prevented undocumented children from attending school in the United States, in direct violation of a Supreme Court ruling allowing them to do so.  The amendment passed the House, but was stripped during negotiations with the Senate. (Gallegly was an immigration extremist long before it became mainstream within the GOP: he has been proposing legislation to restrict U.S. citizenship under the 14th Amendment since 1991.) [21]

These policies, designed by the GOP’s biggest immigration hardliners, did nothing to stem the demand for jobs in a growing economy, and the undocumented immigrant population swelled—from 5 million in 1996 [22] to 11.3 million in 2006. [23]  So even when Krikorian first articulated the idea that immigration opponents could kick all undocumented immigrants out through tougher laws, the evidence indicated that the opposite was true.

Nor is there any evidence to suggest that the GOP’s policy will work today, under an even tougher enforcement regime than the one Reps. Smith and Gallegly passed in 1996.  It can be argued that the first part of Krikorian’s doctrine, aggressive deportation, has been put in place over the last few years.  Deportations have gone up 60% since 2005, to almost 400,000 a year, [24] as several laws crafted by Rep. Lamar Smith and the anti-immigrant lobby have been implemented and more resources dedicated to immigration enforcement.

At first, this enforcement crackdown coincided with a drop in the undocumented population, from 12.0 million in 2008 to 11.1 million in early 2010.  Most experts believe the primary reason for the decline was our contracting economy, and that enforcement had very little to do with the change. However, the “attrition” crowd bragged that their strategy was working: Rep. Smith said bluntly, “Enforcement works.” [25]  Strangely, however, they were eerily silent when the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that the number of undocumented immigrants in the country had remained virtually the same (11.2 million) during 2010 [26]—despite the deportation of nearly 400,000 people during that time. [27] Empirically, deportations and immigrant crackdowns just aren’t inspiring undocumented immigrants to leave the country. 

This should come as no surprise. Undocumented immigrants who have jobs, started families and put down roots in the United States are not spontaneously going to pick up and leave when life gets tougher.  In 2008, 8.8 million people, including 4.3 million undocumented immigrants (36% of the total undocumented population at the time) were members of “mixed-status” families—families in which at least one member was undocumented.[28] As more undocumented immigrants who have been here for years start families, that number will continue to grow. Three hundred and forty thousand children were born in the U.S. to undocumented parents in 2009; 61% of those parents had arrived in the country before 2004, and another 30% had arrived between 2004 and 2007.[29]

Ultimately, the only way to “get rid of” the undocumented population is either to integrate those living here now into our society by implementing a program to register them and get them on a path to legal status, or to deport them all.  But it’s easier to use the euphemism “attrition” than to own up to the harsh realities of mass deportation. Mass deportation is incredibly unpopular with the American public—when faced with a choice between allowing undocumented immigrants to earn legal status or shipping them out of the country, only a third of voters choose deportation. Fully 86% of Americans believe that “deporting all 11 million immigrants currently in the United States is unrealistic.” [30]

Furthermore, mass deportation would cost billions of dollars to implement.  Immigration and Customs Enforcement deputy director Kumar Kibble testified in January 2011 that each undocumented immigrant costs $12,500 to deport, [31] meaning that it would cost at least $139 billion to deport all 11.2 million undocumented immigrants in the country. In another analysis, the Center for American Progress study found that the total cost of a mass deportation strategy would be $285 billion over five years as goverment agents seek out and remove millions of undocumented workers. [32] The full economic impact of the lost population would be deeper still: the Immigration Policy Center estimates that a mass deportation strategy would result in a loss of $2.6 trillion in GDP over the next ten years. [33]

Latino Voters Understand that Attrition = Mass Deportation, and the GOP is Paying the Price

Many political analysts acknowledge that the GOP has a political problem because of its anti-immigrant, anti-Latino brand. Sixty percent of Latino voters considered immigration a very important issue in determining who to vote for in the 2010 election, according to election-eve polling conducted by Latino Decisions, and 66% of Latino voters want a path to citizenship for the undocumented.[34]  Fully 62% of Latino voters know someone who is undocumented.[35]  To many Latino voters, immigration reform isn’t about abstract policies, but about people they know and love. 

Reps. Smith, Gallegly, and King may think they have come up with a clever way to advance the same immigration policies without making their goal of mass expulsion so obvious to Latinos. However, this would again be wishful thinking.  The first two House Immigration Subcommittee hearings this year have focused on pieces of the Republicans’ mass deportation agenda.  The hearings have earned scant English-language media coverage, but the Spanish-language media has been following them closely.  The two hearings resulted in 26 stories published in 69 media outlets.  Overall, 42% of the stories were Spanish-language articles and 61% of the 69 media hits were in Spanish-language outlets.  The total Spanish-language audience size was 2,990,000, making up 62% of the combined audience size. [36] 

Similarly, while many Americans may not have known that the Senate was voting on the DREAM Act during the lame-duck session of Congress in December 2010, both national Spanish language broadcast networks interrupted their regular programming to carry the vote live, after heavy coverage leading up to the vote.  Millions of Latinos watched nearly every GOP Senator cast a vote against some of the best and brightest in the Latino community, and listened to GOP Senators deliver anti-immigrant tirades on the Senate floor.

These votes and policies, along with years of anti-immigrant campaigning, have cost the GOP significant support among Latino voters.  In 2004, 40% of Latinos voted for George W. Bush, a Republican who supported comprehensive immigration reform; in 2008, 31% voted for John McCain as he ran away from his prior support for a path to legal status. [37] Anti-immigrant Republicans fared even worse in many congressional races in 2010; after notorious anti-immigrant campaigning, Sharron Angle won a mere 9% of the Latino vote against Harry Reid in the Nevada Senate race, ending the Republican wave at the Rockies. [38]

For the GOP to make a real effort at courting Latino voters in 2012 and beyond, it has to stop advancing policies designed to remove their family members, neighbors, coworkers, and friends from the country.  Whether it’s called “attrition through enforcement” or “mass deportation,” the end goal is the same. Advocating the mass expulsion of 11 million people — most of whom are Latino–is a dangerous move for the GOP.


[1] Center for Immigration Studies

[2] Mark Krikorian, “Downsizing Illegal Immigration: A Strategy of Attrition Through Enforcement,” Center for Immigration Studies, May 2005

[3] NumbersUSA, “How ‘Attrition Through Enforcement’ Works,” 2007

[4] Mark Krikorian, “Downsizing Illegal Immigration: A Strategy of Attrition Through Enforcement,” Center for Immigration Studies, May 2005

[5] Bureau of Labor Statistics

[6] NumbersUSA pledge signed by Governor Mike Huckabee, January 2008

[7] NumbersUSA president Roy Beck, January 2008

[8] Mark Krikorian, “Downsizing Illegal Immigration: A Strategy of Attrition Through Enforcement,” Center for Immigration Studies, May 2005

[9] “Tom Tancredo Staffer Pleads Guilty to Karate-Chopping Black Woman,” Washington Independent, June 2009

[10] Marcus Epstein, “Attrition—Alternative to ‘Mass Deportation’?” VDARE.com

[11] Marcus Epstein, “Attrition—Alternative to ‘Mass Deportation’?” VDARE.com

[12] Bureau of Labor Statistics

[13] Bureau of Labor Statistics

[14] Mark Krikorian, “Downsizing Illegal Immigration: A Strategy of Attrition Through Enforcement,” Center for Immigration Studies, May 2005

[15] “The Anti-Worker Truth about the Republican House Judiciary Committee,” America’s Voice, 2011

[16] “The Nativist Lobby: Three Faces of Intolerance,” Southern Poverty Law Center, 2009

[17] Letter to President Bush via About.com

[18] This statement can also be seen on the issue page for “Illegal Immigration” on his Congressional website

[19] Rep. Steve King, “Texas or Tejas?”, Congressional website, May 17, 2006

[20] Rep. Steve King, “The attrition solution,” Washington Times, February 11, 2007

[21] Los Angeles Times, “Gallegly urges stricter rules for citizenship,” October 24, 1991

[22] “Illegal Alien Resident Population,” from the Department of Homeland Security website

[23] Jeffrey S. Passel, Pew Hispanic Center, “A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States,” April 14, 2009

[24] Deportations By Fiscal Year

[25] Miami Herald, “Report: ‘Attrition through enforcement’ cuts ranks of illegal aliens,” June 30, 2008.

[26] Pew Hispanic Center, “Unauthorized Immigrant Population: National and State Trends, 2010,” February 1, 2011 

[27] Deportations by Fiscal Year

[28] Jeffrey S. Passel, Pew Hispanic Center, “A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States,” April 14, 2009

[29] Pew Hispanic Center, “Unauthorized Immigrants and their U.S.-Born Children,” August 11, 2010

[30] Lake Research Partners poll, November 2010.

[31] BusinessWeek, “Feds estimate deportation costs $12,500 per person,” January 26, 2011

[32] Center for American Progress, “The Costs of Mass Deportation,” March 2010.

[33] Dr. Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, “Raising the Floor for American Workers,” Immigration Policy Center, January 11, 2010.

[34] Latino Decisions election-eve poll, November 2, 2010

[35] America’s Voice, “Latino Voters: Key to 2010 Midterms, Keeping Expectations High for Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” March 19, 2010

[36] Analysis by America’s Voice, February 2011.

[37] America’s Voice, “The Power of the Latino Vote in America,” October 2010

[38] Latino Decisions election-eve poll of Nevada Latinos, November 2, 2010