Does “self-deportation” (also known as attrition through enforcement) work, if the goal is to cut down on (unauthorized) immigration? For those who want to cut such immigration down, this is a key question to answer. Restrictionist groups such as NumbersUSA, CIS and VDARE have generally taken the stance that attrition through enforcement is a workable strategy (see here, here, and here). The Immigration Policy Center, on the other hand, has argued otherwise.
I laid out hints of my own position on the matter here and here. Briefly put, yes, attrition through enforcement does work, but it also imposes costs and collateral damage on citizens/residents. After some reflection, though, it occurred to me that even without knowing much about the details, one would be led to suspect this.
I begin with the assumption that restrictionists actually want to achieve what they say they want to achieve — that there should be less future immigration (legal and illegal) and that most current illegal immigrants should leave the country. It is, of course, possible that people like Mark Krikorian don’t really want their stated agenda to be implemented, because it would make their jobs as restrictionist advocates superfluous. I find this unlikely, because it seems to me that restrictionists are generally extremely talented people who can find employment in a number of areas that involve the skillful and convincing presentation of a weak case — as lawyers, political aides, or lobbyists — and that their sticking to the relatively less lucrative area of immigration restrictionism is at least partly explained by genuine conviction.
If restrictionists sincerely want what they say they want, this means that their incentives are very much aligned towards determining how to achieve it. Thus, when they evaluate policies like attrition through enforcement and border security, they’re probably the best judges of the effectiveness of these policies.
On the other hand, open borders advocates and immigrant rights groups don’t want immigration enforcement (for the most part) to succeed — or at any rate, not without corresponding liberalizations of immigration policy. Their incentives, therefore, are not well-aligned towards an unbiased evaluation of the success or failure of these policies. To an extent, they face conflicting incentives. If they see a particular enforcement measure that is cheaper and more “effective” at achieving restrictionist ends, do they acknowledge this — and end up providing free service to the restrictionist cause — or disingenuously deny it, coming up with reasons against? I suspect that this is a very real dilemma, and many immigrant rights groups resolve it by fooling themselves into thinking that the effective methods of enforcement are ineffective. It’s similar to how drug use legalization people might feel at being asked to evaluate the effectiveness of drug raids at imprisoning drug users.
For these reasons, you’d see why one might have a strong prior that restrictionists would be more likely to have figured out the best methods of achieving their goals than open borders advocates and immigrant rights groups.
Nonetheless, there is another side to the picture: cost and collateral damage. Here, the incentives for restrictionists are bad. Without knowing the details, one would be led to suspect that restrictionists would systematically underestimate the cost and collateral damage of their proposed methods to citizens and natives. The reason is that hardcore restrictionists have a much higher preference for getting rid of illegal immigrants than the general public, so in order to sell their message to a relatively less (but still highly) restrictionist public, they’d need to underplay the collateral costs of their policies. On the other hand, immigrant rights and open borders advocacy groups would be quick to point out the collateral damage to citizens, and run sympathetic stories of citizens, authorized immigrants, and tourists on valid visas getting detained and harmed by over-enthusiastic enforcement.
My own take on this matter is that the best response for a hardcore open borders advocate to discussions of what forms of enforcement work is to first acknowledge that his/her own complete disagreement with the end goal makes him/her an extremely bad person to consult regarding the means to be used towards that end. One can think of this almost in the sense of a “conscientious objector” who refuses to participate in a system that his/her conscience goes against, or a person who refuses to testify against himself/herself in court. If it is necessary to offer an opinion, there are two alternatives. The first is to be genuinely honest about what forms of enforcement work, but argue that something “working” does not mean that you endorse it. The other alternative is to deliberately dissemble about what forms of enforcement work. While the former is more intellectually honest, I suspect that one can make a case for the latter from a consequentialist point of view, at least in the rare cases that one’s opinion could actually influence or shape immigration enforcement. At any rate, however, the trade-off between intellectual integrity and a conscience that forbids lending support to a policy one perceives as evil should be undertaken consciously rather than out of a reflexive desire to disagree with restrictionists.
UPDATE (March 31, 2014): When I wrote this post, I was broadly of the view that interior enforcement is more effective than border enforcement. However, this blog post by Alex Nowrasteh cites a literature sumary by the Council of Foreign Relations that suggests the opposite. Assuming this summary is correct, restrictionists’ focus on interior enforcement seems puzzling, and the broad claim of this post might well be misguided or false.