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

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

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.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.