It did not become certain until late Tuesday night that President Obama would win re-election. But for Mitt Romney, the campaign may have been lost during the Republican primary, when he cited “self-deportation” as the solution to our nation’s immigration problems. With the post-election dust now settled, it has become increasingly clear that supporting the idea is not only bad as a matter of policy, but also a losing political strategy.
While “self-deportation” may have sounded novel when Romney first uttered the term at a primary debate, the phrase is synonymous with “attrition through enforcement,” a philosophy long trumpeted by leaders of the anti-immigration movement. Perhaps not coincidentally, Romney just weeks before the debate had accepted the endorsement of Kris Kobach, the author of Arizona’s SB 1070, Alabama’s HB 56, and other punitive state immigration laws. By supporting the idea “self-deportation,” he thus sent an unmistakable signal that immigrants without status should be driven from the country,rather than accepted and welcomed.
Of course, Romney sought to downplay his embrace of “self-deportation” after securing the Republican nomination. In the second presidential debate, for example, Romney framed the idea as a humanitarian alternative to deportation, i.e., by giving immigrants the choice to leave rather than removing them forcibly. But voters were apparently not fooled, for the very premise of “self-deportation” is that if the government removes enough immigrants—and makes living conditions sufficiently intolerable—others will be too scared to continue living here.
Once the result of Tuesday’s election became clear, prominent conservatives quickly cited Romney’s position on “self-deportation” as a major cause of his defeat. In light of the rapidly growing Latino population, Fox commentator Brit Hume called it “a short-term and long-term loser.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page dubbed Romney’s primary position on immigration the “single worst decision” of his campaign. But perhaps no one put it better than Ana Navarro, the national Hispanic campaign chairwoman of John McCain’s presidential campaign, who said that by tacking to the right on immigration during the Republican primaries, Romney “self-deported from the White House.”
Meanwhile, the release of exit poll data has only further confirmed the flaws of the “self-deportation” fantasy. Among Latinos—who made up 10 percent of the electorate, an all-time high—President Obama outperformed Romney 71-27 percent. The margin was even larger in Colorado (74-25) and Pennsylvania (80-18), states in which Romney actively campaigned. And on the broader question of bipartisan immigration reform, 65 percent of voters said immigrants who are in the country illegally should be offered a path to U.S. citizenship, while only 28 percent said they should be deported.
Although pollsters and pundits did not always agree during the campaign, they appear to have forged a consensus on the issue of “self-deportation.” Political candidates who believe the United States can simply enforce its way out of the country’s immigration problems, rather than reform the outdated laws that created the problems in the first place, will find it harder and harder to prevail—not only with Latino voters, but with the electorate at large.