It may have backfired as a political argument, but self-deportation might be the new reality anyway. Politico reports today that “voluntary departures” of illegal immigrants have soared during Donald Trump’s presidency, although the “voluntary” nature of those decisions might be debatable. Scaled-up enforcement and get-tough policies have incentivized people to give up and go home:
The number of immigrants who have applied for voluntary departure has soared since the election of Donald Trump, according to new Justice Department data obtained by The Marshall Project. In fiscal year 2018, the number of applications doubled from the previous fiscal year—rising much faster than the 17 percent increase in overall immigration cases, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. The numbers show yet another way the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration is having an effect: More people are considering leaving the U.S., rather than being stuck in detention or taking on a lengthy legal battle with little hope of success.
Last year, voluntary departure applications reached a seven-year high of 29,818. In the Atlanta court, which hears cases of Irwin detainees like Zamarrón, the applications multiplied nearly seven times from 2016 to 2018.
The increase in applications for voluntary departure could be seen as a win for the Trump administration, which has made it a goal to get undocumented immigrants out of the country and reduce the backlog of immigration cases. Indeed, the Justice Department has published the growing number of voluntary departures alongside deportations as a sign of a “return to the rule of law” and that Trump’s approach is working. It’s also a sign of how broad immigration enforcement has become, sweeping up the criminals Trump talks about alongside parents like Zamarrón who have little to no criminal history—voluntary departure is only open to immigrants without a serious record. When Mitt Romney once shared his plan to have people “self-deport,” he meant it as an alternative to ramping up Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s power. But the recent spike in voluntary departure has come with an increase in both arrests and detention.
That’s not entirely true. Romney proposed tough border policies in 2012, followed by a plan to crack down on ID fraud and illegal employment. The result of tougher enforcement, Romney argued, would push illegal immigrants to leave on their own rather than fight the system in court. Romney didn’t envision this level of crackdown, especially in ICE’s aggressive posture with those who have no other criminal record, which is why his “self-deportation” idea prompted derision from both sides of the aisle. It’s not accurate to characterize Romney’s plan as not increasing ICE’s enforcement power to some degree.
For Romney, it was more a matter of applying the correct incentives and letting those dictate choices. In some ways, Trump is leveraging similar incentives, albeit more aggressively. The one incentive that was key to the strategies of both is the fact that voluntary departures makes it easier to re-enter legally:
Under immigration law, voluntary departure is considered a kind of privilege. If you are deported, you have to wait years to apply for a visa to reenter the United States, but those who leave voluntarily don’t have the same wait. And you don’t face serious prison time if you are caught without legal status in the U.S.
That’s why a federal judge has to approve voluntary departures, a point the Politico article notes as well. Requests for such grants spiked upward by 50% in Trump’s first year as president, and that trend may well continue until Congress gets serious about immigration reform. The White House is trying to get Republicans on board another reform effort, even though the poisonous atmosphere in Washington these days makes any risk taken for immigration reform almost certainly futile:
The White House is renewing a contentious battle over legal immigration, looking beyond toughened enforcement policies and President Trump’s push for a border wall to dive into the thorny issue of how many — and what kind of — immigrants should be admitted into the United States.
Trump met privately with a dozen GOP senators on Tuesday as the administration — led primarily by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser — drafts a proposal to transform the existing system into one that prioritizes immigrants based on their ability to immediately contribute to the economy.
But with little support among Democrats for such a dramatic overhaul, few expect any substantial changes this year to the current laws granting green cards — leaving the effort as primarily a political document that Trump and Republicans can rally behind.
“The White House has already said we’re moving in the direction of trying to make a proposal about something the president can be for on immigration,” Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said. “The perception is he’s against this, or we’re against that. And that’s not the truth.”
Under normal circumstances, an off-year with a divided Congress would allow room for a compromise on major agenda items. Thanks to the decision to continue the Mueller wars, no one’s interested in finding common ground. Both sides are more invested in delegitimizing the other than ever. Anyone who sticks his or her neck out on concessions for immigration reform — always a fraught enterprise anyway — needs to have the head on the end of that neck examined.
If self-deportation is working, as Politico’s report suggests, Republicans have even less incentive to talk. At some point the get-tough policies will see diminishing returns, of course; those who have the means to leave go first, and at some point that population will run dry and leave the more destitute stuck in the system. That day may be far enough out to keep the stasis on immigration reform in place until well after the election.