I find illegal immigration to be a vexing problem. Like most problems, it has been exacerbated by federalization. As I’ve previously argued (see, e.g., here), the framers left law-enforcement (including the expulsion of trespassers) to the states; the central government’s role was to set the qualifications for citizenship and protect the states from foreign invasion. If we went back to that, states could make their own immigration enforcement policies. Some would be hostile to non-citizens, some would be embracing, most would be in-between, and it would be much easier to adjust policies based on local employment and social conditions. This would be infinitely better than what we have now — for the states, the immigrants, and our public discourse.
But since both the Left and the Right seem determined to continue under a one-size-fits-all federal regime, self-deportation is the best of the available array of unsavory choices. It is the only realistic policy that stands a chance of gradually and humanely reducing the population of illegal immigrants to a manageable amount, for which we could then reasonably discuss some form of legalization — under circumstances where you would not be opening the floodgates and undermining the rule of law, because the government would have established its seriousness about discouraging illegality and securing the borders.
I understand the Journal‘s contrary view. I think the editors are wrong to promote legalization — I’ll avoid the counterproductive word “amnesty” — prematurely. First, the illegal-immigrant population must be materially reduced and a climate promoting assimilation and lawfulness must be established, and that will take some time. Yet I fully sympathize with the editors’ goal of embracing and welcoming hard-working, self-reliant, and often gifted people into our society. I also have no doubt that this is precisely the goal Mitt Romney and other supporters of “self-deportation” are trying to achieve, in a way that, while being sensitive, is responsible. I get why the Journal editors disagree, but I don’t understand why they always have to be so disagreeable in doing so. They’re too smart not to know that we’re not all nativists and that we don’t want mass-deportation.