BY DECLARING that “self-deportation” is the solution to illegal immigration, Mitt Romney gave voice to an idea in wide currency among Republicans — that America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants would simply go home if government made their lives miserable enough. But even by the debased standards of primary-season rhetoric, the idea is as simple-minded and absurd as it is popular — as Mr. Romney’s rival, Newt Gingrich, quickly pointed out.
“Self-deportation” is snappy and sound-biteable; hence its superficial appeal. Slap together a water-tight employment verification law, issue IDs to legal workers, add some harassment from state and local authorities, and watch the unpapered immigrants stream south over the border whence they came. If they want to return to the United States, said Mr. Romney, they can get to the “back of the line.”
The idea’s inanity is masked by its allure for some who hate illegal immigration but concede that mass roundups and deportations would be unseemly and prohibitively expensive. Better, they say, that illegal immigrants leave under their own steam — and pay their travel expenses, too.
When Mitt Romney said in the Republican debate on Monday night that he favored “self-deportation” as a solution to illegal immigration, it seemed to come out of the blue, perhaps an effort, as the race moves to Florida, to soften the hard line he has staked out on immigration.
In fact, that position has been advocated for years by restrictionist and conservative groups and is central to tough laws passed in Arizona, Alabama and South Carolina, among other states. Mr. Romney’s embrace of a strategy that would induce illegal immigrants to leave voluntarily places him squarely on the side of groups that want to reduce legal immigration and vigorously oppose any plan to give legal status to illegal immigrants, which they reject as amnesty.
The idea arose from a recognition by those groups that no administration was going to conduct mass roundups to deport an estimated 11 million immigrants now living in the United States. Instead, the idea is to make it so difficult for illegal immigrants to live in this country — by denying them work, driver’s licenses and any public benefits and by stepping up enforcement — that they will give up and go home.
“Obviously, you can’t deport your way out of the problem,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a leading restrictionist group. “You have to convince people who came on their own to leave on their own.”
But is it so funny — or new? Why would anyone self-deport?
The answer is in the middle of Romney’s response: You’d self-deport because you don’t have legal documentation allowing you to work here.
So the mockable, hilarious and unlikely idea is an enforcement of existing law. It remains illegal to work in America without proper documentation; that we collectively look the other way doesn’t, in fact, make it legal.
The extremes don’t make serious arguments about “fixing” immigration. We can’t round up masses of people and send them home, despite Rick Santorum’s suggestion we do that because Mexico is “a great country” and “not Siberia.” We also can’t give blanket amnesty to people who broke the law to get here, unless we want to encourage millions more to do the same.
Some paint Romney’s position as far-right because a version of it has been supported by more zealous immigration opponents, but it’s actually a fair compromise. Enforce the laws, secure the border and give those who self-deport a fair track to US citizenship.