Self-Deportation in the Trump Era

It’s January 23, 2012. Four men stand on a stage in Tampa, Florida, debating the future of the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing within the United States. One of them, a well-groomed businessman sweating a bit under the lights, utters a word that will profoundly alter the American dialogue on immigration: self-deportation. He characterizes the concept as an ostensibly more humane alternative to the old-fashioned method of rounding up illegal aliens and shipping them back from whence they came. Make it next to impossible for them to work in this country, he explains, and illegal immigrants will leave the country of their own volition in order to seek work elsewhere. The idea is met by scattered laughter and even a few groans from the Floridian audience. Hearing it for the first time, they consider it far-fetched, especially juxtaposed against the hard-line immigration stance that often prevails over leniency in the Republican party. 

The businessman, Mitt Romney, would go on to win the party nomination but lose in the general election, never getting to see his concept play out in the political world. However, the next Republican presidential nominee, also a businessman— albeit less well-groomed—went on to win the presidency. He supports the idea as well. 

Self-deportation relies on the premise that the federal government can materially worsen illegal immigrants’ quality of life in the United States. Briefly setting aside the ethical and moral ramifications of such a policy, let’s first examine the question logistically. The obvious first step in making life more difficult for illegal immigrants is barring their ability to work. Though it is already against the law to knowingly hire undocumented workers, longstanding lax enforcement has created an almost de facto acceptance of the practice. Part of this hands-off stance may be due to simple economics; it’s bad business to lay off millions of workers overnight. 

Richard Hanus, a practicing immigration lawyer since 1990, explained that—for all the United States’ tough talk on enforcement— the country’s current immigration policy is a far cry from zero tolerance. “If the United States were really serious about deporting every illegal immigrant,” he says, “it would invest billions to expand by a factor of thirty, the immigration court system along with the immigration agent and prosecutor workforce, and it would pass much harsher regulations cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants.” 

What would happen, however, if this attitude were to change? 

Art By: Michelle Huang

Art By: Michelle Huang

In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. While it gave amnesty to illegal aliens who had been living in the United States for an extended period of time, the law also attempted to disincentivize illegal immigration by preventing undocumented workers from finding employment—similar to the principle underlying self-deportation. As a result of the act, employees were required to show verification of legal status by filling out an I-9 form with the federal government. However, even the I-9 is far from an airtight, zero-tolerance policy. Documentation can be faked, and employers aren’t particularly inclined to turn away viable workers. The result is the United States’ complicated, seemingly contradictory attitude towards illegal immigration. Tough rhetoric and ICE raids convey the problem as pest control: a seemingly impossible task of forcefully removing 11 million individuals. However, when it comes to employment, our enforcement system is little more than a mutually beneficial agreement to look the other way. 

Trump has proposed eliminating undocumented labor once and for all by mandating the national use of e-Verify, a program operated by the Department of Homeland Security that compares employees’ I-9 forms against federal records. This action could make it considerably more difficult for illegal immigrants to find employment. On the other hand, the technological arms race is still playing out. E-Verify could very well be the next I-9: a bureaucratic non-entity in enforcing the law. Hanus argues that, even if this system is implemented, undocumented immigrants would find ways to adapt. “Sole proprietors, those who start their own business, would largely be unaffected. Some jobs pay cash, off the books. Because, in the end,” Hanus tells me, “illegal immigrants are unlikely to self-deport.” As a rule, they come to this country to lay down roots, to create a better future for their children. However, even this may soon be in jeopardy. 

In August 2015, the Trump campaign released a six-page position paper listing a spate of policies that would effectively end illegal immigration. The proposals focused mostly on enforcement, including significantly increasing the number of ICE officers, defunding sanctuary cities, deporting all criminal aliens, and, most strikingly, ending birthright citizenship (also known as jus soli, Latin for “right of the soil”). This means that children born on U.S. soil to illegal aliens will no longer be guaranteed citizenship. Whether the Trump administration will actually pursue this, or if it was merely empty campaign rhetoric for his anti-immigration base, remains to be seen. Furthermore, such a policy directly contradicts the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which states “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States…” Ending birthright citizenship would thus most likely require a new constitutional amendment, which requires the approval of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and the ratification of said amendment by three-quarters of the states. Indeed, the sheer amount of support needed makes such an action unlikely to happen anytime soon. But, while there is some legal ambiguity, those who argue for eliminating or restricting jus soli without modifying the Constitution arguably read the Fourteenth Amendment quite narrowly. If such bill were passed by the Republican-controlled Congress and signed into law by Trump, it would certainly face an uphill battle in the courts. 

It is worth noting that unfettered jus soli is not a universal practice. In fact, most countries, including all of Europe, impose at least some additional citizenship requirements for children of non-citizens. Some might argue that automatic birthright citizenship is a motivating factor for undocumented aliens seeking a better life for their progeny to emigrate. However, there is no clear evidence that suggests revoking jus soli would deter illegal immigration. Citizenship, after all, is but one component of the coveted American Dream. Even without the allure of guaranteed citizenship for their children, undocumented aliens would likely still make their way to the United States for the same reason they do now: the prospect of a better life, especially for future generations. Creating more obstacles to citizenship would only further hamper immigrant families’ assimilation into the United States. 

A few conservative politicians have come under fire in recent years for using the term “anchor babies” to refer to the children of illegal immigrants born in the United States. This attitude towards first-generation immigrants that such rhetoric suggests reflects a growing nativist attitude, especially among Trump’s populist base. Enacting policy rooted in such anti-immigrant ideology/nativist sentiment would send a strong message, especially within a country that often prides itself as a land of opportunity. 

In addition, Trump has expressed ambivalence about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Obama administration policy that granted temporary, renewable amnesty to undocumented aliens who entered the country as minors. Trump vowed to terminate the program during his campaign, though it remains to be seen whether he will fulfill this promise. Ending DACA, like ending birthright citizenship, likely won’t provide impetus for illegal immigrants to self-deport, especially as the policy applies only to longstanding, law-abiding residents who grew up in the United States. In the campaign for self-deportation—or, at the very least, in its ability to ensure worsening conditions for present and future undocumented immigrants—the federal government wields incredible power. For good reason, too. Immigration is, by and large, a national issue— one that ought to be debated and discussed by all Americans, not just those in places where illegal immigrants are concentrated. However, in practice, local and state governments play a large role in enacting federal policies and interacting with undocumented aliens. 

Many locales have vowed to defy federal immigration enforcement, declaring themselves “sanctuary cities.” In response, the Trump administration has flexed its power over the purse, repeatedly threatening to withhold federal funds from these cities. Mississippi recently became the first state to expressly forbid sanctuary cities within its borders, with a few other states contemplating legislation to that effect. During his first week in office, Trump issued an executive order intended to strengthen local and national cooperation vis-à-vis immigration enforcement. Under section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Department of Homeland Security can deputize volunteering state and local law enforcement to assist with enforcement. Only a few dozen police departments have yet taken the DHS up on the offer, though that number could significantly increase during Trump’s presidency. 

The tension between federal authority a n d state and local autonomy may have a tremendous effect on the political reality of self-deportation. Despite the federal government’s outsized power in dictating immigration policy, the actual enactment of said policy will depend, in part, on the shifting power dynamic within local governments. Self-deportation, ultimately, is a policy that depends less on the letter of the law than on the de facto environment it creates for undocumented immigrants. Sanctuary cities and resistant state governments— whether by preventing ICE raids or, as in Chicago, facilitating access to education—can create a better environment for undocumented immigrants and their families. That power alone, though in contention, could be enough to oppose self-deportation. 

The Trump administration may never actively and openly pursue self-deportation. It may instead devote all its resources to force: increasing funding for ICE, expanding 287(g), and building a wall along the Mexican border. It may, though unlikely, look to the left for a compromise, offering amnesty and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who have resided in this country for an extended period of time. It may stall on the issue altogether, unable to unite the fractured Republican lawmakers in Congress. If the executive branch does pursue self-deportation, however, it seems unlikely to succeed as intended. Even if local and constitutional resistance is minimal, the mere idea of 11 million undocumented immigrants electing to leave the country seems far-fetched. The policy would only double down on the country’s current immigration double-bind, in which undocumented immigrants are officially condemned while tacitly permitted to participate in the workforce. Self-deportation would only cement undocumented immigrants’ second-class status while ignoring any possible beneficial solution. 

If lawmakers can recognize the futility of attempting to remove, by force or not, the undocumented immigrant population within the United States, perhaps the reform dialogue can focus on how best to incorporate these immigrants into our economy and society. The young undocumented immigrants who gained temporary relief from deportation under DACA earned significantly higher wages, paid more taxes in turn, and purchased their first cars and homes. More importantly, DACA allowed over 750,000 immigrants the safety of knowing that, for at least two more years, the country in which they grew up would remain their home. 

Ultimately, it could be argued that self-deportation is less about finding a pragmatic, efficient method for reducing the number of illegal immigrants than about causing ostracism and punishment. The enforcement policies of self-deportation accomplish little more than the preservation of a fragile yet oppressive status quo by keeping millions in lower-quality, lower-paying jobs, and turning local police departments into disturbingly dystopian deportation task forces—all while convincing 11 million Americans that they fundamentally do not belong.