“Self Deportation”? Inconvenience For Us All Won’t Be Enough

Author: on 02/01/2012


Last month, I noticed this piece on the Bloomberg web site highlighting the practical effect of Alabama’s “strictest in the Nation” state-level immigration law on Alabama’s citizens.  The article vividly illustrates what it takes to enact what Kris Kobach and other anti-immigration advocates call “attrition through enforcement” – or what Mitt Romney recently called “self-deportation” – the idea that 11 million immigrants without status can be convinced to leave the US voluntarily, if only we make it hard enough for people without status to live in the United States.

As the article makes clear, the only way to make life too difficult for immigrants without status to bear is to turn every “transaction with a citizen,” in the words of Alabama’s HB56, into an immigration checkpoint.  In other words, the only way to make life in the US difficult for those immigrants is to make life equally difficult for ordinary Americans:

In one month, [Mobile County License Commissioner Kim] Hastie’s office handed out 332 temporary vehicle registrations to legal Alabamians without proper paperwork. There were 152 in all of 2010. Fewer than five people in the country illegally were turned away, she said.

Thwarted citizens got mad: “They’d say, ‘I’m not a Mexican. Do I look Mexican to you?’”

One World War II veteran had no birth certificate, an expired driver’s license and a military identification that the county couldn’t accept, she said.

“He was so mad he was yelling,” Hastie said. “He said, ‘I served my country and I can’t register my car?’”

Alabama’s requirement that any person prove his or her legal status in order to do business, of any kind, with the state government has proven to inconvenience Alabama’s US citizen residents almost as much as it inconveniences the 2.5 percent of the population who live there without authorization – probably more, in fact, since Alabama’s US citizen residents are required to transact business with the government much more often than the relatively few unauthorized immigrants do.

It wasn’t until I heard this week’s edition of This American Life, however, that I really began to appreciate what “self-deportation” will really require.  Transacting business with the government, after all, is hardly a daily event,  whether we are here legally or not.  Merely requiring ID and proof of legal status to license a dog or get water service for a new house is unlikely to make life hard enough that someone without status will want to leave.

What self-deportation is going to require, if it is to work as its proponents say it will, is for all of us, every day, being willing to cut ourselves off – economically and socially – from our neighbors.  We will have to ask everyone we need to deal with for their papers before we sell them groceries or even offer them the sign of peace in church.  And, if we are Latino, or speak with an accent, we will have to prove our legal status every day to everyone we meet.  Jack Hitt, who authored the piece, put it this way:

Every Latino person, legal or illegal, whom I spoke to noted at some point that there’s just something hateful in the air now. Before the law, they felt accepted. They had American friends. They didn’t feel out of place.

Now when they go to a store, every single one of them told me they feel that people are looking at them weirdly, like, what are you still doing here? When the law changed to make them less welcome, they actually became less welcome, in a day-to-day, “passing you on the street” sort of way.

When considered in terms of tax dollars, “self deportation” would, indeed, cost less than having the government arrange deportation of 11 million people (around $285 billion).  The human and economic costs on the communities in which these immigrants live – splitting up families, disrupting businesses whose workers and customers leave, destroying whole towns – are the same.  The human cost to all of us, however, as we must harden our hearts and demand “papers” from every one of our Latino fellow-citizens, from every person we encounter who “looks foreign” to us – that is a price I pray our country decides it never is willing to pay.

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