Quietly, all across America, illegal immigrants are doing an extraordinary thing -- deporting themselves.
In response to stepped-up immigration enforcement, thousands of Arab and Muslim illegals are leaving for home on their own. It is a dynamic that offers the first hopeful sign for solving an illegal-immigration crisis that has an estimated 700,000 illegals coming to the United States a year and joining an illegal population of roughly 9 million.
Earlier this year, 82,000 Arab and Muslim men registered with immigration authorities in a post-Sept. 11 security program, and more than 13,000 proved to be illegal. Those 13,000 are slated for deportation, but authorities might not have to force them out, because many of them -- and many others -- will leave on their own.
"It's a sign that we don't need to deport 8 or 9 million people to deal with illegal immigration," says Mark Krikorian of the pro-enforcement Center for Immigration Studies. "We just need to send a signal that immigration law matters. It's like broken-windows policing."
If we have learned anything during the past decade, it is that the signals sent by society matter. With broken-windows policing -- i.e., cracking down on seemingly minor offenses -- and other get-tough tactics, New York City sent a signal in the 1990s that it expected laws to be respected. Crime plummeted. With welfare reform, the nation sent a signal that living on the dole was no longer acceptable. Welfare dependency dropped.
Now the country is making tentative steps toward sending a signal that its immigration laws are not to be brazenly ignored. It is a sign of how far American immigration enforcement had fallen that people here illegally would be shocked -- as related in numerous news accounts -- that there would be any consequence to their illegal status.
But as deportations of Pakistanis, Jordanians, Lebanese and Moroccans have doubled during the past two years, the new signal has begun to register.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service estimated that there were 26,000 Pakistani illegals in the United States as of 2000. The Pakistani Embassy now says that more than 15,000 Pakistani illegals have left the country since Sept. 11. Even if the original INS estimate was low, this represents a sizable proportion of the illegal Pakistani community engaging in do-it-yourself deportation.
The New York Times recently reported that roughly half of a sizable Pakistani community in Brooklyn has left, either for Canada or home, as a result of the stricter enforcement. The departures make sense, since immigrants are people who will respond as rationally as anyone else to incentives.
Indeed, when Congress passed a seemingly tough law mandating sanctions on businesses that hired illegals in 1986, the number of illegals coming from Mexico noticeably declined. When it became clear that the sanctions would never be enforced, the illegal flow picked right up again.
The INS was often prevented by Congress from acting on the very 1986 law it had passed. Now the political culture has shifted. In the post-Sept. 11 environment, it is no longer possible to shrug your shoulders and ask, "What harm can one illegal immigrant do?"
A legitimate criticism of the crackdown now affecting Arab and Muslim immigrants is that it is selective. In the short term, this is understandable, since those communities present the greatest potential threat of harboring terrorists. In the long term, however, it is unfair that immigration laws only be enforced on one segment of immigrants. Eventually, the new culture of enforcement must apply to illegals from Mexico and Latin America as well.
In the meantime, it is heart-rending to read of immigrants with no connection to terrorism tearing up what roots they had planted here. But the United States has a generous -- overgenerous -- program of legal immigration to which aspiring Americans are welcome to avail themselves. If what they want, on the other hand, is a country that will tolerate lawbreakers in its midst because it simply won't bother to enforce its immigration laws -- well then, try Canada.