THE BLOG

GOP 'Self-Deportation' Fantasy Is Alive and Well

02/05/2015 07:54 am ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015
John Moore via Getty Images

Here we are again, just one month into the 114th Congress and Republicans in the House are recycling the same old immigration bills with no solution for the 11 million people living and working in the shadows as undocumented immigrants, no solution for other American workers and no solution for American employers.

Yesterday's hearing in the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security was the sixth hearing in four years on E-Verify -- the electronic employer verification system designed to determine who is eligible to work legally. But without a plan to legalize workers, the Legal Workforce Act proposed (again) by Republicans, is just another ineffective, half-baked bill that won't fix our immigration system.

E-Verify is widely understood to be an important part of any top-to-bottom fix of our broken immigration system. Every serious comprehensive immigration reform proposal in the last decade has mandated the use of E-Verify or something like it by all employers. I know, because I worked with offices on both sides of the Hill and both sides of the aisle to write most of those bills.

But E-Verify in the absence of broader reforms would destroy entire industries and weaken our economy. It would drive our current workforce -- especially our undocumented workforce -- farther underground and keep them off the books. And hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens and Legal Permanent Residents would be falsely identified as ineligible to work because of flaws in the system and its data.

When approximately one in 20 workers in the U.S. economy are in the country illegally, what will happen when you mandate E-Verify tomorrow and do not fix other aspects of immigration?

The Republican fantasy is that 11 million people will leave the country.

The Republican fantasy is that millions of people who work in the United States will suddenly decide that their prospects for economic advancement and the survival of their children would be better served if they went back to rural Cambodia, or walked back to the mountains of Central America. But how many will take their chances in the countries they fled because of war, murder, famine, and desperation?

The fantasy that millions of people will simply disappear if we just have stricter laws, the old "self-deportation" theory and the lynchpin of the Romney campaign in 2012, did not work as a political strategy and is laughable as a policy.

Democrats -- and frankly, most Republicans and most Americans -- do not believe that E-Verify in and of itself is a magic wand that will miraculously make 11 million people and their families disappear.

We believe that we need three basic ingredients to get more control over immigration, to make sure that immigration is operating within the law, not outside of it.

Number one is legal immigration. We do not hear the Republicans talk much about legal immigration because it deeply divides their party and a good third of the Republican Caucus in both Houses of Congress is opposed, by and large, to legal immigration.

They want fewer immigrants in the U.S., which is precisely why we are stuck in a rut and unable to move forward on any immigration reform.

The solution to illegal immigration is legal immigration and Republicans have just not figured that out. With legal immigration comes control. With legal immigration comes orderliness, vetting, and visas.

We do not need an unlimited amount of legal immigration, but right now we are constrained by the levels that were agreed upon by Congress sometime in the 1990s. The black market flourishes when we restrict the supply of legal immigration too much.

The second component of immigration reform is enforcement, including E-Verify.

If people can go through our immigration system rather than around it and we have checks on employers, such as jail time and huge fines, and muscle and money behind our enforcement and adjudication systems -- we can have an immigration system based on the rule of law.

There is no reason we should have a 20th Century paper-based worker verification system in a 21st Century economy. Just as there is no reason to have 20th Century immigration quotas for a 21st Century economy.

But the largest barrier seems to come from the third element of immigration reform, which is to recognize that millions of people have lived here for decades, raised children, and held jobs in this country but have no way to get legal or be fully protected by American labor laws.

The Republicans want you to believe this fantasy: that the magic wand to get rid of all undocumented immigrants will work this time if we just pass the standalone E-Verify bill introduced by the Republicans several years ago.

But that strategy has not worked for the past 25 or 30 years and those 11 million people are not magically disappearing. They are cornerstones of American communities like mine in Chicago. They have jobs, mortgages, car notes, careers and children, most of whom are U.S. citizens.

With no way to get legal -- and no way to leave and come back legally because Congress outlawed that too -- we must offer a viable solution other than just hoping long-term immigrants in the U.S. will simply go away.

Mass deportation has not worked. Even in places like South Carolina, where I traveled last week, people are not "self-deporting." The slowdown in the economy did not drive massive numbers out of the country, and now that the economy is steaming again, we shouldn't expel large numbers of experienced, capable working men and women. It would be hugely counterproductive.

Even in the unlikely event that Republicans get their way in trying to make the Obama administration deport 600,000 DREAMers who have already come forward and passed criminal background checks -- as the DHS funding bill passed by the House and under consideration by the Senate this week does -- it will not actually give us more law and more order.

Like recycled E-Verify proposals, the Republican majority is offering less law and less order and it all amounts to being a political stunt to reassure their most conservative supporters that they are standing up to the president; supporters who absurdly blame immigrants for crime and the measles outbreak and, in some cases, who still think the president is an undocumented immigrant himself.

The show-hearings the Republicans are staging in the House Judiciary Committee this week and next do not make me optimistic that serious proposals to address border security and immigration reform are forthcoming. It is a shame because the American people want progress towards an immigration system that is safe, legal, orderly, and one that is worthy of their pride.

Rep. Gutiérrez of Illinois is a Member of the Judiciary Committee and the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security and is the Co-Chair of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.