Governor Mitt Romney has stated that the country’s immigration problems can be solved through “self-deportation.” Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia agree. For example, K–12 public schools in Alabama are required to ascertain the immigration status of all enrolling students. Police officers in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia check the immigration status of all individuals booked into jail. These “self-deportation” laws and policies, also known as immigration enforcement through attrition, are designed to discourage and deter unauthorized migration. Yet these policies are having a broader impact; they are creating a hostile context of reception for immigrants regardless of their immigration status. Social scientists have found that immigrants’ structural and cultural environment—their context of reception—plays an important role in shaping their incorporation patterns, including naturalization rates.

Based on this social science research I offer a new argument about the impact of sub-federal immigration enforcement. Sub-federal immigration enforcement has overwhelmingly taken the form of “self-deportation” laws and policies. It is my contention that the growth of these policies may discourage eligible immigrants from naturalizing. The use of racial profiling to implement these policies shapes immigrants’ perceptions about the value of citizenship. It reveals that ethnicity, foreignness, and immigration status are often conflated, and that the social benefits of citizenship are not equally available to all. Recognition of this reality may cause some immigrants to conclude that the benefits of naturalization do not outweigh the costs. While “self-deportation” policies may successfully deter and discourage unauthorized migration, they may also discourage eligible Latino immigrants from naturalizing and becoming formal members of U.S. society.

Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2012

Publication Information

16 Lewis & Clark Law Review 1149-1213 (2012)