Last night, asked if he favored rounding up illegal immigrants and deporting them, Mitt Romney said no. Instead, he replied, "The answer is self-deportation." This produced a steady stream of jokes on Twitter, but in fact this is a term of art that's long been used by anti-immigration activists. Adam Serwer describes what it means:
What "self-deportation"—the favored approach to immigration of the GOP's right-wing—actually means is making life so miserable for unauthorized immigrants that they "voluntarily" leave. Here's Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies (the anti-immigrant think tank that tried to mainstream the "terror baby" conspiracy theory) explaining the concept in 2005:
The solution is to create "virtual choke points"—events that are necessary for life in a modern society but are infrequent enough not to bog down everyone's daily business....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.
....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 polices in order to make life for unauthorized immigrants so unbearable that they have no choice but to find some way to leave.
Well, that's what it means on the extreme right, anyway. But the truth is that many on the left, including both Barack Obama and me, support the same idea in a more humane version. Here's me six years ago, for example:
I'm basically in favor of a market-style approach that tweaks incentives to increase the cost of immigrating illegally while decreasing the cost of immigrating legally. At some point, if you can enact the right basket of policies to get the costs right, you'll reduce illegal immigration to a point we can live with.
So: crack down on employers because that's probably the the cheapest and easiest way of discouraging illegal immigration. If it's hard to get a job, you're less likely to cross the border. At the same time, make it easier to immigrate legally with a reasonable path to citizenship. This makes "getting in line" more attractive. Do these things right and there just aren't very many people left who find the illegal route more attractive than coming over legally.
I don't want mass roundups of illegal immigrants (or people who look like they might be illegal immigrants) and I don't want their kids to go without education or healthcare. But I do support the idea of making E-Verify more accurate and more widespread, something that would make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to get jobs and probably lead more of them to leave the country. Like most supporters of comprehensive immigration reform, however, I only support this if it's paired with efforts to make it easier to immigrate legally and to provide current immigrants with a path toward permanent residence. If simple human decency isn't reason enough for this, common sense and self-interest both point in the same direction. It's simply not plausible that stricter enforcement all by itself will ever work given our country's obvious appetite for the services that immigrants provide. Supply and demand are flip sides of the same coin, and if we want a program that actually works over the long term, we have to address both.