Romney meant self-departing, not self-deportation

Mitt Romney’s Jan. 23 Florida debate response that “the answer is self-deportation” is confusing on several fronts. What he really means is that he wants undocumented people to depart the country on their own. But anti-immigrant groups have adopted the term “self-deportation” in recent years to mean a sort of war of attrition on the “illegal immigrant” population.

Romney via DonkeyHotey @flickr

Others have already explained the concept: the idea, as Romney alludes to in the short clip below, is to make life so difficult for undocumented immigrants that they just up and leave the country. This explainer from Mother Jones and this parody from This American Life certainly help us understand what Romney thinks.

But immigration judges and immigration lawyers use the term self-deportation in another way. An immigration judge may permit an “alien” to “self-deport” within a certain timeframe after he or she has been ordered removed from the country. In that case, the person being deported could go home and arrange his or her affairs before leaving the country on their own recognizance, rather than being escorted to the border or flown home.

UPDATE: After discussing this again with a third, experienced immigration attorney, I need to clarify further. What I describe in the paragraph above is actually “voluntary departure.” Self deportation refers to people who leave the country on their own (without ICE officers removing them), while under a standing deportation order or order of removal or who leave after the time period for their voluntary departure has elapsed.

In Amor and Exile, I had been using the phrase “self-deport” to describe what many mixed-status couples end up doing: leaving the United States together, on their own terms, after failing to obtain a visa for the immigrant partner. This is what Nicole and Margo and many other couples have done.

In theory, I would like to take the definition a step further and say that the American citizen partner is also self-deporting. Even though it is technically a choice for them, the American spouses of immigrants for whom there is no path to legalization are also being excluded from the country. But I’ve found that coining new usages for technical terms can be a slippery slope, so I will have to come up with another term of art, I think—perhaps simply “departure” will suffice (though not Voluntary Departure, because that is something else altogether). *see UPDATE above

Presidential candidates should be more accurate as well when describing their policy positions. First off, Romney’s argument is naive and cruel—would he be willing to kick immigrant kids out of schools nationwide, shut off people’s utilities as occurred in Alabama and set up checkpoints on the roads to achieve his goal? But second of all, he is saying he does not want to deport 11 million people, but he wants them to self-deport, which as we’ve just seen, means they are really being deported.

I have a book that Romney and the other candidates ought to read if they want to better understand this stuff. We just have to finish it first.