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The rancor embedded the conservative conversation around immigration reform, for me, centers on the idea of self-deportation. Self-deportation is, simply put, coercion in its most brutal, cynical form.
If self-deportation sounds ridiculous to you, that’s good, because that means you’re probably not an asshole. Currently, the Republican party stance on immigration reform endorses, among other measures, “humane procedures to encourage illegal aliens to return home voluntarily” — in other words, self-deportation. These humane procedures ensure that so-called illegal immigrants in the United States can’t get jobs; they can’t get access to benefits; they can’t organize against abuses, labor and otherwise; they can’t enroll their children in schools; they are blocked in every way possible to traveling a reasonable path to citizenship. They are not only denied basic citizenship rights, but basic human rights.
Former Gov. Romney had this to say about self-deportation in the debate on Tuesday night:
What I was saying is, we’re not going to round up 12 million people, undocumented illegals, and take them out of the nation. Instead let people make their own choice. And if they find that they can’t get the benefits here that they want and they can’t find the job they want, then they’ll make a decision to go a place where they have better opportunities. But I’m not in favor of rounding up people and taking them out of this country.
The biggest problem here, among many ginormous issues, is the idea that self-deportation creates some sort of agency in the immigrant — who, let’s not forget, has already made a choice. To come to the United States.
Essentially what Romney’s saying is that when somebody is presented with impossible choices and must choose, that that individual bears the weight of that choice alone, and is solely responsible for it. That choice is a moral act, and that it exists in a vacuum. This is wrong. Conflating the absence of choice with self-determination is a deeply cynical act, and disturbing in its effectiveness.
The language and philosophy of self-deportation isn’t new. This is old hat in the forever-after debate of why women suffer from pay inequality and hit the glass ceiling — it’s that women choose to have children and opt out of the workforce, and so of course it’s only natural that they fall behind climbing the corporate ladder. Pay inequality isn’t the issue; women have chosen to earn less. Women have made the choice to live their lives that way. We deserve less pay. Sound familiar?
This conflation is also evident in the discussion of trafficking and sexual slavery worldwide. Women would rather be sex workers than starve. So they are choosing prostitution. Women aren’t being coerced into sexual slavery; they choose to go with a trafficker because it will make money for their family. In a recent episode of Women’s Media Center Live, Robin Morgan put it this way: “Poverty is a form of coercion. The idea that only coercion is a gun to your head—it’s ridiculous.”
Self-deportation is a tired and manipulative way to create a situation in which by presenting a false sense of agency, the ruling system actually removes all agency whatsoever. We provide immigrants with a choice to leave because we take every other available option away from them? Fuck you. We’ve internalized American individualism to the extent that we can’t accept that the “choices” we offer to our most vulnerable are beyond flawed. It’s not terribly different from the way that many of us have internalized patriarchy to the extent that we don’t advocate for women, because women in the U.S. have it so much better than anywhere else, and we have chosen the course of our lives.
Listen, I’m a first-generation immigrant kid. My husband is a first-generation immigrant kid. I am fairly certain that my parents, who came to the U.S. in the 70s, weren’t going to self-deport, not under any circumstances. I’m pretty sure that my father, who was trained as an engineer in Seoul and took a job as a gas station attendant in Chicago, and my mother, a trained RN in Korea who had start from scratch after they immigrated, weren’t going to give up because things were “tough” in America. They came here, remember?
My husband’s father, who grew up in the posh suburbs of Bogota, left Colombia and La Violencia to make a life for himself in the U.S. He eventually ended up in Kansas, where Witchita State University had the cheapest college tuition he could find. To support himself while a student, he worked as a janitor on campus. He met my mother-in-law, a fellow student and janitor, a Mexican-American from a Texas border town who, as she says, “was born in America before it was part of America.” Things were tough. My husband spent part of his childhood living in a trailer home. In one neighborhood he collected bullet casings he would find in the yard, and line them up on his windowsill. His parents continued working. They didn’t “opt out.”
Thirty years later, they’ve built solid middle-class and upper-middle-class lives. My husband and I are the only two kids of our generation in our combined family that don’t have Ivy League degrees. We have creative careers we love. We live in a brownstone in Brooklyn and buy cheese for $22 a pound. Our hands only get dirty when we want them to. We are all proud American citizens. We have voices.
That all happened in a generation. I don’t believe my family’s story is exceptional. There are legions of kids who grew up like us. Our immigrant success story, was, once upon a time, not that unusual. But I refuse to believe it is because we were “legal” immigrants. I refuse to believe it is because we are different, or more righteous in our “legality,” or more deserving, or harder working, or more persevering, or more solid in our convictions than so-called illegals who come to America with a dream and a willingness to work. My parents came here with visas and grad-school educations and it didn’t matter. My dad still ended up working an under-the-table job, illegal, paid in cash, because it’s the only one he could get.
Self-deportation is a cynical concept that won’t ever work. People will never make the choice to leave, not when they have any hope of progress. People don’t quit on their dreams. It’s the system that fails them.
Amy S. Choi is a journalist in Brooklyn, N.Y.