De Leon: Please Etch-A-Sketch Away the Self-Deportation Myth

Undocumented immigrants protest Alabama's harsh new immigration law (Photo: Dreamactivist)

This is not what self-deportation looks like: Undocumented immigrants protest Alabama's immigration law, HB 56. (Photo: DreamActivist)

Mitt Romney revealed how he would address the issue of 11 million unauthorized immigrants during a Republican primary debate earlier this year:

“The answer is self-deportation, which is that people decide that they can 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,” the presumptive GOP presidential candidate said.

The strategy is also known as “attrition through enforcement,” which anti-illegal immigration group NumbersUSA describes as the “enforcement of all the laws already on the books” at all levels of government to “make it extremely difficult for unauthorized persons to live and work in the United States.”

Proponents of the approach in Alabama assert that their tough immigration law has already led to the self-deportation of many undocumented immigrants. They present the state’s falling unemployment rate as evidence of this trend.

“If you compare our unemployment rate drop to the region, our drop was much more quick,” State Sen. Scott Beason, a sponsor of Alabama’s HB 56, said. “I have been asking for months for the people who say [the law] had nothing to do with it, to explain to me what did it. Why are we so much faster, and why did it start in October?”

So does “attrition by enforcement” truly work?

A new report by the Immigration Policy Center claims it does not. Dr. Alexandra Filindra, author of the report, titled The Myth of Self-Deportation, says the problem with the self-deportation theory rests in the assumption that immigrants will make an economic decision to leave.  She doesn’t buy the idea that undocumented immigrants will leave voluntarily rather than risk getting arrested, detained, and eventually deported.

Filindra counters this theory with preliminary evidence from studies conducted in states where draconian immigration laws have been passed showing that the immigrant population has largely remained in place.

Many economists say the presumed correlation between HB 56 and Alabama’s unemployment rate is faulty. Rather, they contend the fall in the state’s unemployment numbers is a result of people dropping out of the workforce while job creation remains more or less flat.

“The proponents of the immigration law really have no solid, defendable, reasonable evidence other than the desire to link those two together,” Keivan Deravi, an economics professor at Auburn University Montgomery, told the Montgomery Adviser.

Ahmad Ijaz, an economist with the University of Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Research, added that “it’s mostly because as the jobs are hard to get during the recession, a lot of people give up on looking for a job.”

Juan Pedroza, whose research is cited by Filindra, writes that “it’s tough to tell whether (and how many) immigrants have left a community if you are looking right after a state passes a law. It can take years of evidence to test claims of a mass exodus.”

Pedroza also mentions an important variable in any undocumented immigrant’s equation: his family. He writes, “immigrant families with school-age children have local roots. Parents have invested a great deal in their children’s future by settling down and enrolling their children in school. These families rank among the least likely to flee for good.” In other words, jobs aren’t the only incentive to remaining in a locale.

So, as presidential candidate Romney moves to the center on immigration and shakes his Etch-A-Sketch, he might as well erase his preferred method for dealing with our unauthorized neighbors. May I humbly suggest a reasonable and fair solution for the 11 million undocumented immigrants?  A majority of Americans — including Republicans — favor a strategy that includes both enforcement and a path to citizenship.

You can follow Erwin de Leon on Twitter or read his blog.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

AboutErwin de Leon
Erwin de Leon is a Policy Researcher and writer based in Washington, DC. He writes on immigration, LGBT, and nonprofit issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @ErwindeLeon.