We Are All Fans of Self-Deportation


Ezra Klein has read Donald Trump’s immigration plan and finds it even worse than he expected. I didn’t feel that way: it read to me like a pretty standard right-wing take on illegal immigration, with just a few added Trumpisms (Mexico will pay for the wall, we should force companies to hire Americans, etc.). But two things in Klein’s piece struck me enough to want to comment on them:

The plan would be a disaster for immigrants if enacted. But even if it’s not enacted, the plan is a disaster for the Republican Party, which is somehow going to need to co-opt Trump’s appeal to anti-immigration voters, but absolutely cannot afford to be associated, in the minds of Hispanic voters, with this document.

….When Mitt Romney embraced “self-deportation” in 2012, it was considered an awful mistake….But self-deportation is Trump’s plan, too. And Trump’s insight here is that the best way to drive unauthorized immigrants out of the country isn’t to target them. It’s to target their children and families.

On the first point, I think this ship sailed a long time ago. Maybe the Trump publicity juggernaut will aggravate things further, but I honestly don’t see how the Republican Party could appeal to Hispanics much less than it already does. The anti-immigrant rhetoric from leading Republicans has been relentless for years, and Trump is merely adding one more voice to the chorus. Will Trump’s bluster about making Mexico pay for the wall really make things any worse?

The second point is a little trickier. It’s true that Mitt Romney blew it in 2012 with the infelicitous phrase “self-deportation.” But the uproar that followed elided an important point: every immigration plan involves putting pressure on illegal immigrants in order to motivate them to (a) leave or (b) not come in the first place. There’s a sliding scale of pain involved, and liberals tend to want less while conservatives tend to want more. But both sides make use of it.

The easiest way to think of immigration control is like this:

  1. Figure out how many illegal immigrants you’re willing to tolerate.
  2. Ratchet up the the cost of illegal immigration and ratchet down the cost of legal immigration.
  3. Eventually, you’ll figure out the right combination of costs that gets you to your number.

Nobody talks about immigration like this, but it’s the thought process behind every immigration plan. Both Republicans and Democrats support E-Verify, for example, which makes it harder for immigrants who lack legal documents to get jobs. But what is this, other than a way to use economic pressure to persuade illegal immigrants to go back to Mexico? Likewise, both Democrats and Republicans support border security. Republicans may generally want more of it than Democrats, but Democrats are nonetheless willing to use increased security to raise the cost of crossing the border.

In the end, everyone uses this calculus,1 whether consciously or not. The amount of pressure—or cruelty, if you prefer—that you’re willing to employ depends on just how many illegal immigrants you’re willing to tolerate. But no matter what that number is, if you put any pressure at all on illegal immigrants, you’re exploiting the power of self-deportation. Just don’t say it out loud, OK?

1The exception, I suppose, are the people who advocate completely open borders. But they’re a very tiny minority.