The New Yorker on Self-DeportationPosted: February 14, 2012
CANDIDATES ON THE BORDER
The Republican Presidential campaign has been a bruising race to the bottom on illegal immigration, with seemingly every humane or realistic suggestion provoking a pile-on. Even the mild-mannered Jon Huntsman called Rick Perry “treasonous” for noting that the border with Mexico cannot simply be fenced. Poor Perry: his problem seemed to be a Texan’s familiarity with the actual border—its vastness, its complexity, the billions of dollars it will cost to maintain the hundreds of miles of fence already built (still covering less than a third of the border’s length), and the pointlessness of building more in ever-tougher terrain. Perry’s realism, and the glimmer of compassion he was willing to show—“If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought here by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart”—played a significant role in his fall from grace. And so he, too, joined the race to the bottom, seeking the endorsement of America’s most notorious anti-illegal-immigration warrior, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and bringing him out on the campaign trail in Iowa.
Now, with the focus of the campaign shifting to Arpaio’s home state of Arizona, a center of anti-illegal-immigration feeling, the issue’s bound to resurface. It seems to unhinge some politicians. Remember Herman Cain’s electrified border fence? It was going to be twenty feet high, with barbed wire on top and enough voltage to kill a human being. Cain later said he was joking. Actually, a lot of the Republican Presidential contenders’ proposals on the issue would be funny if they weren’t so bizarre or disturbing or both. When Mitt Romney was asked how he would handle illegal immigrants living in the United States, he said, “Well, the answer is self-deportation.” Newt Gingrich has suggested that the deportation question should be decided by neighborhood review boards, which would evaluate the quality of an undocumented individual’s community ties. Rick Santorum, normally second to no straight man in defense of the traditional family, has advocated breaking up families that contain illegal immigrants, as millions of families do. Santorum, belittling Gingrich’s expressed concern for grandmothers who are longtime residents, offered a novel legal theory. “You can’t be here for twenty years and commit only one illegal act,” he told a group in Iowa. “Because everything you’re doing while you’re here is against the law.” (If you can’t get your mind around that concept, you’re in good company. Lacking residence papers is a civil violation, not a crime.) Everyone in the field condemned Perry for making a college education too accessible to undocumented young people in his state—he was “soft on immigration.” Perry retaliated with charges that Romney had made health care too accessible to illegal immigrants in Massachusetts.
And that fence: a mighty one, even if not electrified, has become a must. Will Romney build one the entire length of the border? Yes? Then Gingrich will build two.
Gentlemen, are these Christian sentiments? Do they even attract votes? According to Gallup, a substantial majority of Americans favor, even in this time of high unemployment, a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants—what Romney and company deride as “amnesty” at every turn. The hot pursuit of the Republican primary “base” can carry a man not only many miles from the political center but also far from the teachings, certainly on the subject of immigration, of his own church.
Going that far can also carry a man, such as Romney, into the realm of self-parody. His self-deportation idea is both deadly serious and an old joke. The phrase was apparently coined in 1994 by two Chicano satirists, Lalo Alcaraz and Esteban Zul, for the purpose of mocking an anti-immigrant California ballot initiative. Alcaraz played, brilliantly, a “militant self-deportationist” and right-wing Latino called Daniel D. Portado, and he stayed in character even while being interviewed on TV. A new group, Patriots for Self-Deportation, recently launched a Web site urging Americans to investigate their family trees for illegal immigrants and “anchor babies” and then, if they find anything suspicious, to do the right thing and self-deport. The site is now filling up with anguished testimonials from conscience-stricken young white people heading off to Italy and Poland to atone for their ancestors’ misdeeds. (Portado has sent the new self-deporters a hotly worded cease-and-desist letter.) Meanwhile, irony-free anti-immigrant groups are also laying claim to the phrase, defining it as a synonym for “attrition through enforcement,” which is the strategy behind harsh new laws in Alabama and, yes, Arizona. The aim of those laws is to make life so difficult for illegal immigrants that they will pull up stakes and leave. And that is precisely what Romney meant. His chief adviser on immigration issues, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, was the draft author of both the Arizona and the Alabama laws.
Romney has already gone too far for some of his supporters. Jacob Montijilo Monty, a Houston attorney and Latino Republican activist, wrote a searing column for the Las Vegas Sun last Friday. Monty, once a donor to Romney’s campaign, accused the candidate of “heckl[ing] Hispanics with nativist rhetoric.” Romney’s enthusiasm for self-deportation had been the last straw.
Exactly what kind of conditions would be required before tens of millions of undocumented persons would agree to ‘self-deport’? How hostile would the cultural climate have to be for millions of men, women and children to flee from it? And what about the rest of us, governor? What about my children, who are as proud of their American citizenship, history and heritage as your five fine sons? Would they be forced to grow up in the environment of hateful suspicion that ‘self-deportation’ would require? Like a battered spouse who stays silent in the vain hope that things will somehow change, I made excuses for Romney, crossed my fingers and, until now, kept my lips sealed—and among other Hispanic Republicans, I’ve not been alone. No mas. I want to file charges.
This sort of disaffection could doom a candidate in the general election. Latinos are both the largest and the fastest-growing minority in the country, and their vote will be crucial in several battleground states. Jeb Bush, who knows something himself about persuading Latinos to vote Republican—he won a majority of Latino votes in Florida in 2002—wrote recently, in the Washington Post, “In the fifteen states that are likely to decide who controls the White House and the Senate in 2013, Hispanic voters will represent the margin of victory.” Romney, or whoever wins the Republican nomination, probably plans, per tradition, to tack back toward the political center on a range of issues, including immigration, during the general-election campaign. That may not work, however, on this issue, with these voters. Politically liberal or conservative, people know when they have been scapegoated and insulted. Barack Obama has not delivered on his campaign promise to push hard for comprehensive immigration reform, even after Latinos helped lift him to victory in 2008. But at least everyone knows he was kidding when he talked about putting moats full of alligators on our southern border.