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The pluses of self-deportation

Anti-immigration demonstrators hold signs and American flags during

Anti-immigration demonstrators hold signs and American flags during an anti-immigration rally May 5, 2006 in Santa Clara, California. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

As a Mexican-American journalist, I'm often accused by immigration restrictionists of "undermining the rule of law," "supporting open borders" and being "pro-amnesty."

So let me throw them a curve by putting in a good word for the surprisingly controversial concept of illegal immigrants deciding to self-deport. 

Speculation that Mitt Romney, a two-time GOP presidential candidate, might be getting ready to get back into the arena has reopened a debate that Romney started in 2012 over whether the undocumented would "self-deport" if the climate in the United States were less hospitable.

The idea was mocked during the campaign by New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, one of the most prominent Latino Republicans in the country. In an interview with Newsweek, Martinez snapped: "Self-deport?' What the heck does that mean?" She urged Romney to dump the slogans and "have a sincere conversation" about how to fix the immigration system.

Romney ultimately turned in a disastrous showing with Latinos, getting only 27 percent of their vote.

During a recent interview on Univision, the nation's largest Spanish-language television network, Romney was asked by journalist Maria Elena Salinas if he thought his bid for the presidency had been doomed by his support for self-deportation -- which Salinas claimed motivated many Latinos to vote against him.

Romney stood his ground.

 "My view was, you're not going to have the government deport tens of millions of people," he said. "Instead, let people make their own choices. And those that decide that they have better opportunities elsewhere will decide to return to their home country."

Many Latinos detest Romney, and with good reason -- his boneheaded and self-serving remarks about immigration. He promised that if were elected president, he would veto the DREAM Act -- a popular piece of legislation with Latinos, which would have let undocumented students stay in the country if they went to college or joined the military. He also attacked Gov. Rick Perry for signing a law that allows illegal immigrants in Texas to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, and pummeled former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for suggesting that work permits be issued for the undocumented to keep families together.

But Latinos can't argue with what Romney says about human nature. People will go where the jobs are, even if it means turning their back on the United States and going home. Contrary to what you hear from right-wingers on talk radio, immigrants don't come for handouts. They come to fill jobs. When the jobs leave, often so will they.

Nor can Latinos argue with Romney's other point -- that it's always better for people to make their own choices rather than let the government make those decisions for them. The Obama administration taught them this lesson when it deported 2 million people, divided hundreds of thousands of families, and callously dumped thousands of U.S.-born children into foster care.

Guess what? People who "self-deport" take their kids with them so families are left intact. Which way is more humane?

Frankly, I was once as skeptical as Martinez about the idea of self-deportation. I thought it was a fantasy -- one shared by nativists in the Republican Party and union workers in the Democratic Party. I was convinced that illegal immigrants would never voluntarily leave the United States, especially since many of them go to so much effort to get here.

That was before the U.S. economy soured, the Mexican economy rebounded  and people started packing their bags. According to a survey last month by the International Monetary Fund, the Mexican economy has a growth forecast of 2.4 percent this year and 3.5 percent in 2015. It is all because of major reforms in the energy, telecommunications and financial sectors. Many of those who decided to stick it out on this side of the border found themselves in such bad straits that they went from sending money home to borrowing money from home just to survive in the United States. Once some of them figured out that this reverse dependence defeated the whole purpose of migrating to another country, they began to leave. 

Then there are those folks who will never make the journey in the first place. Today, net migration across the U.S.-Mexico border is near zero and many folks have opted to remain in Mexico anchored by the same powerful force that drew others here and may now lead them back home -- opportunity.

There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, there is a lot right with it.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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