The Society for the
Study of Social Issues

"Self-deportation" and the U.S. immigration debate

The use of the term “self-deportation” by Mitt Romney in the Republican debate for the presidential nominee in Florida drew audible boos from the audience but was tacitly endorsed by the ensuing debate between the candidates. Implying a tightening of laws and enforcement to cause undocumented immigrants to leave the country, the term has previously been used only sporadically in the past, sometimes facetiously. And the conceptual gymnastics of it have not been lost on comedians. In fact Robert Mackey writing in the New York Times suspects that the expression originated in a skit by two satirists Lalo Alcaraz and Esteban Zul in 1994.

But ‘self-deportation” may become a key tenant of the Republican immigration discussion, and this is a worrying prospect for its sheer unfeasibility and its negative connotations. The absurdity of the idea spans so many spheres, not merely the economic, social, and political. Certainly the demographics of undocumented immigrants serve as a stark refutation of it. An editorial in the Washington Post, ‘The self-deportation fantasy’ recently explained that “…nearly two-thirds [of undocumented immigrants] have been here for more than a decade, and more than 28 percent arrived more than 15 years ago. Their roots here are deep: Almost half have children, and more than 80 percent of those 5.5 million children were born here and are U.S. citizens. Does Mr. Romney expect them to “self-deport” with their parents?”

The economic recession in the United States has led about a million undocumented immigrants to leave since 2008, but recent evidence seems to suggest that the numbers are beginning to level off. Claims by the presidential Republican candidates that immigrants are leaving states such as Arizona and Alabama as part of a trend that will continue due to harsh anti-immigration laws are actually unfounded. Long term data may or may not confirm that notion, but it’s hardly a good immigration policy platform for a serious presidential election contender.

Meanwhile adequate scholarly literature on the subject tells how damaging the anti-immigration hyperbole is to immigrant communities and their host communities. The subject was featured in a whole issue of the Journal of Social Issues last year. Findings from communications science and intergroup messaging also suggest that there is a strong relationship between the language we use to frame policies and the attitudes of people to the groups and individuals concerned in the policy.

Alex Ingrams
SPSSI Policy Coordinator

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Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin