Illegal immigration and the 2012 campaign
Writes Shannon O'Neil: "Mitt Romney’s 'self-deportation' solution to illegal immigration ignores the underlying reality." (Getty Images)
February 16th, 2012
06:00 AM ET

Illegal immigration and the 2012 campaign

Editor’s Note: Shannon O’Neil is Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and publishes the blog, Latin America’s Moment on Follow her on twitter @latintelligence.

By Shannon O’Neil – Special to CNN

As the country begins to turn to the general election next November, immigration remains a difficult issue for both political parties. During the early Republican primary debates, candidates talked enthusiastically about mass deportations and expanding, doubling, and even electrifying the U.S. southern border fence to keep people out. As the field has narrowed, the leading contenders have continued with a hard-line. Romney in particular, though widely seen as a centrist candidate, has taken an unyielding stance on immigration, supporting Arizona’s and Alabama’s restrictive laws and aligning himself with their architect - well-known anti-immigrant official Kris Kobach.

The tone got so strident in the lead up to the Florida primary on January 31 that Florida Senator Marco Rubio (who many say is a potential candidate for Vice President) chastised the Republican candidates for “harsh and intolerable and inexcusable” anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The Democratic Party’s discourse has been more measured. Though all condemn illegal immigration, most speak of immigrants as “folks ... just trying to earn a living and provide for their families,” no different from so many forebearers. But in concrete terms, President Obama has little to show immigrants - and more importantly Hispanic voters - from his three plus years in office.

During his time in the White House he failed to pass the Dream Act (which would give undocumented individuals that came here as children the chance to come clean by enrolling in a college or enlisting in the military), much less a more comprehensive immigration reform. What the administration has done is increase deportation to record levels, though now it is working to remove otherwise law-abiding, unauthorized individuals from the deportation queue.

These conflicting positions and heated debates show that  the politics of immigration has changed little since the failed 2007 Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, championed at the time by Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain. Yet immigration itself has changed dramatically.

For over a decade, Mexicans have represented roughly a third of all U.S.-bound migrants. In the mid-2000s roughly half a million Mexicans joined the U.S. population  each  year (fairly evenly divided between legal and illegal entries). But since then, migration from our southern neighbor has declined greatly, to the point that in 2011 net inflows neared zero. The change isn’t only happening with Mexican migrants. Inflows from other countries such as China, and the Philipines show declines as well.

Many factors are behind this shift. One is economic - the downturn in the U.S. economy and economic resilience in other places has altered the cost-benefit analysis of leaving home. Particularly in countries such as China,  India, Korea, and Brazil, anecdotal evidence suggests that economic growth is luring back migrants, who bring with them new skills and resources.

The decline in migration also comes in part from increased border enforcement. Since 2004, the border patrol has doubled to some 20,000 strong, with annual budget outlays reaching nearly $3.5 billion. The increased manpower have made at least some immigrants think twice about facing the mortal danger of crossing through the desert.

But perhaps the most important shift, at least for Mexican immigration, is demographic. Forty years ago, the average Mexican family had six children. This number dropped steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s, until by the turn of the 21st century they averaged just over two per family (similar to the United States). This means that going forward, each year fewer Mexicans will be coming of age and looking for jobs. Combined with rising high school and college enrolments, fewer Mexicans need or want to come to the United States - a trend likely to continue for the forseeable future.

This doesn’t mean that U.S.-bound migration will end, as economic opportunities and family ties will still draw many north. It also doesn’t apply to every country.  Flows from Central America, Africa, and from other places around the world continue unabated. But it does fundamentally change the nature of U.S.-bound immigration, likely permanently. This has yet to feed into U.S. political debates.

Politicians today are looking for ways to attract the now over twenty million potential Hispanic voters, roughly 10 percent of electorate. Both Republicans and Democrats face challenges in rallying this growing demographic. Republicans need to cut into Obama’s wide margin (more than two-thirds) among Latino voters, finding some way to gain their trust and backing. Democrats need to get out this favorable Hispanic vote, as they are still the least likely of the main ethnic groups to go to the polls.

Latinos have the potential to swing a close election. In fact, some analysts suggest that Obama will likely win or lose a second term based on the turnout and electoral support he gets from this constituency  in the battlegrounds of Florida, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. And though surveys show that Hispanics care most about the economy, education,  and healthcare, immigration  matters to them as well - particularly when it stirs worries of broader discrimination.

Whoever wins, the real challenge for tomorrow’s President will be how to deal with the fundamental shifts within the U.S. migrant population.  Changing the rhetoric is a necessary start. Some politicians do see this.

During a CNN debate on national security, Newt Gingrich said "I don't see how the party that says it's the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter of a century." But others don’t.

Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” solution to illegal immigration ignores the underlying reality - that millions of America’s undocumented immigrants have deep roots in American society that go far beyond employment. They won’t voluntarily leave behind their families and their lives, even if they lose their jobs. Only by reframing the debate can America hope to find a sustainable solution that balances economic needs, family and community ties, and respect for the law.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Shannon O’Neil.

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Topics: 2012 Election • Immigration

soundoff (45 Responses)
  1. Pylar

    "They won’t voluntarily leave behind their families and their lives, even if they lose their jobs."

    I don't know how that conclustion can be supported. Indeed they left their families behind to come to the U.S. There are many stories about parents leaving children in their mother country for years to be raised by various famiy members. It is sad for parents to bring their children to a place where they must be taught to lie, hide and cheat to get through the day. Are those the characteristics we want in future citizens?

    February 15, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Reply
    • Oscar Brewer, Jr.

      Many americans live like that now, especially when taxes are filed.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Reply
      • haloguy628

        So Oscar in other words it's OK. Right?

        February 17, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
      • blucorsair

        Oscar, ...sounds like our current president, who filed for a foriegn student loan from Kenya at Occidental college in CA. Maybe, that's why his recrds are sealed!

        February 20, 2012 at 1:50 am |
    • ObjectiveView

      Just want to know one thing.

      Do the Latino American population, I mean legal residents and American citizens, support an amnesty to illegal aliens? I don't think so - the majority of them cares about the oversupply of labor, and the deteoriation of social securities.

      February 18, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Reply
      • Tachoman

        What they object is the approval of laws that espcifically targets them for discrimination based on ethnic and race.

        Though they may be legal they still have ties with much of the countries they came from and no one likes to see a relative or a countryman abused.

        When considering this issue, people must steer away from proposals that portrays them as Nazis.

        February 18, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
  2. Kevin Daly

    I don't want to teach anyone to lie or cheat and I know that illegal workers will out work native born workers. I met a man who used to chop cotton and he told me that when the crops had to be harvested none of his contemporaries knew where the the illegals came from as they din't live in the area but they would work almost twice as hard as all the native born workers. Long hours per day and 7 days a week. I know that there were no immigration laws before 1923 and the first law was sponsored by the unions to try and raise wages so my father came to the USA under the new law but he was a college educated person. My mothers adoptive parents came in in the 1800's and there was no laws except health regulations. I strongly support unions but I also strongly support immigrants the solutions will both hurt the workers of the USA and the immigrants but there must be a solution the integrates all the people of the world into US society. Working for the common good is what the USA used to be all about but now that the Dixiecrats have taken over the Republican Party I don't know how the United States will come together.
    The answer as Dylan sang many years ago "is blowing in the wind" lets listen and work together maybe being as tricky as LBJ when he said "Mr. President I dare you to veto the National Defense Student Loan Program."

    February 15, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Reply
    • hacimo

      There is no need for america to invite the whole worlds population into our country. Our first job is to give a decent living and put bread on the table for families that have been here for generations, built this country from the ground up with their sweat, and gave their sons to fight in our wars. Only when that is taken care of should we worry about providing hospitality for foreigners. If they come legally and are invited then they are our guests and need to be treated with dignity. As for illegals who sneak in uninvited, they are trash who have violated our hospitality and our sovereignty. We owe them nothing, they don't belong here, they harm our own people by taking their jobs, and they should be thrown out the door like the trespassers they are.

      February 18, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Reply
      • Tachoman

        They are humans not trash in the first place.

        They take jobs no one wants and in many cases no longer even know how to do, such as harvesting crops.

        There is an issue but the sollution needs to be a humane one, else we become like the nazis.

        February 18, 2012 at 10:47 pm |
      • blucorsair

        Tachoman; Those jobs that supposedly nobody wants are in high demand among our youth who have found out the proverbial hard way what Obamanomics has done to our economy! ... for the first time in US. history young people are the highest unemployed group in american history! ... replacing our youth's entry level jobs with illegal immigrants is an insult!

        February 20, 2012 at 1:43 am |
  3. wigglwagon

    "I don't want to teach anyone to lie or cheat and I know that illegal workers will out work native born workers."

    That is patently untrue. You need to get down in the ditch on a pipeline job and watch Americans work 12-14 hours a day 6 and 7 days a week. There is one major difference between that and the agriculture jobs that people love to use to bad mouth American workers. Pipeliners make a decent living and have good BENEFITS. Agriculture has enjoyed their slave like labor for the last 30 years and will let a lot of crops rot in the fields in hopes of getting the naive to put enough pressure on politicians to let them return to using illegal alien workers. They will whine and cry for decades if they are forced to compete with other businesses for workers.

    February 15, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Reply
    • haloguy628

      Construction is a prime example. Construction workers used to make good salaries and had insurance, workers comp when injured, and SSA benefits for their old age. Then the illegals came in, and construction industry has become minimum wage job paid under the table and none of the safety net. When the illegals get injured they stroll to the nearest emergency room and then disappear with the hospital being stuck with the bill. Who do you think pays the bill?

      February 17, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Reply
  4. Odin999

    Why does the news media want to support criminals acts of illegal immigration? The real answer to this problem lies in getting the Federal Government to start enforcing existing laws. Deport all illegal aliens, secure the border and fine anyone who hires an illegal. Amnesty (DREAM ACT) was tried in 1986 and was a total failure. We have massive unemployment in the United States and huge budget deficits. Its time for the Federal Government to do its job.

    February 15, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Reply
    • Tachoman

      And the current unemployment is the immigrants fault?
      Not that of greedy bankers? Useless wars? Becoming obsolete in the face of rising nations?
      Truth is that when wealth was abundant no one cared about this issue, but pointing fingers is always easy isn't it?

      February 18, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Reply
      • Guy Kimble

        Not True! Your a liar or just plain retarded.

        February 19, 2012 at 5:08 am |
  5. Ted

    The fact that O'Neil refuses, outside of the headline of the piece, to draw the all-important distinction between legal immigration and illegal immigration is laughably typical. She and those like her in the pro-illegal immigration crowd know that once that distinction is made, 95% of her arguments are lost.

    February 16, 2012 at 3:26 am | Reply
    • Guy Kimble

      What kind of fool are you? That difference between the two is simple. One is legal and one is not. This is your brain this is your brain on drugs.

      February 19, 2012 at 5:11 am | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    True, there will be less Mexicans northbound. Mexico's economy is picking up after emerging the deepest economic slump since the 1930s. Foreign investments in billions pour into the country in the recent years. Many will prefer to stay at home and help improve the living conditions. Crime is unfortunately the main concern among most Mexicans.

    February 16, 2012 at 5:48 am | Reply
  7. Pyles

    I have American roots coming from a large emigration to Brazil of southern people, after the civil war. Most did well. This happened almost a century before Brazilians started to fly to USA, looking for opportunities. Few Americans know that.
    In recent years more and more young Americans (and Europeans, and …) are seeking for work opportunities here. Many are staying, getting married, having kids.
    The world is a kind of complex communicating vessel. And world economy follows Pendulum like movements. These are Nature's laws. The only way to reduce large inflows is to achieve smaller unbalances among nations wealth, but shortseeing politicians are always acting towards the opposite.

    February 16, 2012 at 7:29 am | Reply
  8. lia

    The thing is that we are all human beings. i don't know why we are discriminating the illegal immigrants. It doesn't matter how much americans work, because illegal immiggrants work too, to feed their family and americans too. let me ask a question, NO AMERICAN WOMEN WOULD EVEN GO CLEAN HOUSES RIGHT, BECAUSE THEY THINK IT'S TOO DIRTY, Well we hispanic women work in houses, and that's a job too. and we get dirty. We leave our children in our country's with some other family members because we want a better life for them, and a good education, not because we illegal immigrants leave our kids abandon and that's not true. A mother who leaves her child is because she doesn't peole get that right

    February 16, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Reply
    • Gunther217

      I clean my own house. Go home and come back legally.

      February 17, 2012 at 11:15 am | Reply
      • dmz

        you must be on welfare, seem like you could go to work and quite robbing the goverment. go out and clean a house or go out and work in the fields picking up the corp.

        February 17, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
      • dmz

        also, so you have a house too....guess who build that house you live in, illegals built that house, why, because the american contractor wanted to contract cheap labor and make a big profit. now who's robbing who and using what illegals.

        February 17, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • jess

      YOU ARE BRAKING THE LAW!!! do you not get that!
      why is it ok for you to brake the the law but not an american??????

      February 17, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Reply
      • Tachoman

        Who's stopping you from breaking the law? All you need is not to get caught!

        I think U.S. has more pressing matters than dealing with people who takes jobs no one else would, like drugs, economy, Iran perhaps?

        February 18, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
    • Guy Kimble

      Not that the houses are too dirty but because the jobs won't pay enough because scabs like you drive wages down. How about going back and cleaning houses in your own country. Oh! Wait a minute. You won't clean their houses because they won't pay you enough either. Sounds like you’re doing a double standard just to justify your excuse for illegally being in my country.

      February 19, 2012 at 5:19 am | Reply
  9. david marriott

    Niether the Obama administration or the Democrats who are in controll of the federal gov't, will talk about how they betrayed or replaced the youth entry level jobs with illegal immigrants! Unemployment has hit the ethnic minority youth hardest in this country with no end in sight! ...this will simply not be a major talking point in the 2012 election for the liberal media and Democrats!

    February 17, 2012 at 2:31 am | Reply
  10. Gunther217

    Shannon, you lost me at "well-known anti-immigrant official Kris Kobach."

    Kris Kobach is an opponent of ILLEGAL immigration. Without that distinction, your argument falls apart.

    February 17, 2012 at 11:14 am | Reply
    • Tachoman

      Kris Kobach is a racist bigot emanated from the Tea Baggers.

      Any sollution pertaining HUMAN BEINGS, starts by treating them like such.

      February 18, 2012 at 10:56 pm | Reply
  11. Ba'al

    All illegal laines are criminal by their very presence and need to be arrested and then deported. Their American born children need to be stripped of the citizenship as it was gained by the criminal act of the parent. Any employer who knowingly hires illegal aliens needs to be arrested and jailed too and their business and private property seized for tax evasion and aiding and abetting criminals.
    As a teenager in Pearsall, Texas I worked long and hard harvesting peanuts for minimum wage, $3.35 and hour. Then in the mid 1980s the illegal started to show up and worked for $1.00 an hour so of course they were hired and Americans were fired. Property taxes in town and the county started to go through the roof as schools were suddenly flooded with illegal alien children and the hospital services they got went unpaid by them. Public housing started to get built in the area to accomidate all those single moms without means of support, an illegal alien female with an American born child and working for cash in the fields so the income is unreported. That is what illegal laiens for the most part contribute to America.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Reply
    • jess

      Well said!

      February 17, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Reply
    • Tachoman

      Heil Hitler!

      Go to school and learn some grammar please.

      February 18, 2012 at 10:57 pm | Reply
  12. haloguy628

    As a legal immigrant I am offended by the shills like the author of this article who for devious ulterior motives refuse to distinguish between LEGAL IMMIGRANTS and ILLEGAL ALIENS. There is tremendous difference between somebody who followed the law and legally immigrated in comparison to somebody who decided to cross the border in the middle of the night and in process walked all over US laws and all that this country stands for.

    February 17, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Reply
  13. beall

    Ah,history-The process has all been the same in American history-Be it Italian ,Polish ,Irish ,Chinese ,not to mention the ugliest form -African slave labor- all performed the same function: filled jobs for less than someone else would, for nothing or next to nothing. The difference now being workers have entered the country illegally with employers sidestepping the laws since put into place to prevent abuses.The very fact that there is a debate at all about this workforce is a wake up call as to who is controlling our country,it is no longer you and I,the citizens, the voters-but a business lobby that as time goes by becomes richer through it's illegal means of obtaining profits.The article mentions the decreased flow of illegal immigration into the US which I conclude may be a better economy in Mexico.I wonder how Mexico will deal with an illegal migration from the US into Mexico?

    February 18, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Reply
    • Tachoman

      With open arms as they just love Gringas!

      February 18, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Reply
  14. JMorcan

    Who cares about a few thousand illegal immigrants when jobs are going to China and India by the millions? Not one of the candidates – including the buffoon in the White House – has a plan to stop the last of our wealth and power from draining away. The only thing this system will now ensure is decades of poverty.

    February 18, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Reply
  15. hacimo

    I am sick of know-it all think take cretins like this fool "fellow for Latin American Studies" telling Americans how to treat immigrants. We all come from immigrants and we have been dealing with them since this country was founded and we know perfectly well how the game is played. I think he might just have an pro-immigration agenda but the fact is that america is not an empty uninhabited wasteland any longer. It is pretty darn near full. The environment and the resources are getting used up. We can't just go on taking in more and more foreigner forever. There is a limit to everything and we are getting close. What we need is for folkks to really take a step back and decide to vote for the presidential candidate that will end this nonsense of illegal immigration once and for all. And that means deporting ALL the illegals that have already gotten in and stopping new ones from coming. That means no welfare benefits for illegals, e-verity for all job applications, prosecution of employers who exploit illegal labor, fences on the border, and no amnesty and no dream acts! This here is not rocket science. It does not take a lot of brains to figure out what is needed. You just have to set to work and DO IT.

    February 18, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Reply
    • Tachoman

      And do you have any idea of how much it would cost to persecute 11 million human beings as if they were criminals?

      I don't think the U.S. has such money or time to dedicate their efforts in such a manner when there are more pressing issues than a lot of working people.

      The worst of this debate is that no one cared when wealth rolled in steadily but the moment things go south it becomes easy to point fingers at those who can't defend themselves.

      February 18, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Reply
  16. Joey J

    The US has almost 30,000 airline flights per day. Carrying over 2 million passengers. It wouldn't be very difficult at all for most of the illegals to go home. It wouldn't even cause a strain on the airline industry. In fact they would hardly even notice the exodus among the normal travelers.

    February 19, 2012 at 4:54 am | Reply
  17. catt

    287(g) Program for Local Immigration Enforcment

    Last week, DHS head Janet Napolitano told Congress that she doesn't want to do the "exit" part of the entry/exit system for the 45-million-a-year foreign visitors because she has illegal immigration under control already. Apparently, no visitor is overstaying visas any more.

    Napolitano also is refusing to deport about 300,000 illegal aliens who already had their day in court and were ordered deported. etc. etc. etc.

    And now the President has submitted a budget that allows Napolitano to gut the 287(g) program that trains local and state police to arrest illegal aliens, detain and transfer for deportation. The open-borders groups have been demanding an end to this program for years, and this budget would give them most of what they want.

    February 21, 2012 at 1:20 am | Reply
  18. Elizabeth Meza Gomez


    February 23, 2012 at 1:54 am | Reply
  19. bill

    Romney is not real on anything.

    March 8, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Reply
  20. Sammie Sulivan

    Dear Editor,
    Illegal immigration does in fact still remain a mass controversial issue in the 2012 presidential campaign. During an early republican primary debate, candidates talked actively about deportations and expanding and even electrifying the U.S. southern border fence to keep people out. What a horrifying idea, “electrifying” seems a bit too much. America is land of acceptance not of rejection.
    Furthermore, the Democratic Party condemns illegal immigration as the article stated. Most democrats believe immigrants as “folks ... just trying to earn a living and provide for their families,” which is no different than you or I. However the true problem to this article is the fact that it only compares the political parties’ ideals and not what the American population thinks and feels as a whole about this controversial subject. The United States is a representative government meaning governed by the few the people elect that best fits the people’s ideals.
    This is the true problem, our government needs to reflect what we feel and think about the issues not what they may feel is best. If the government keeps portraying their ideals rather than the peoples than perhaps our nation was not truly ours to begin with.

    March 12, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Reply
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