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The immigration debate, explained in 14 buzzwords

Following immigration policy on the campaign trail can feel like reading one of those pieces about the symbolism of different kinds of flowers. Everything has a meaning: Rhetorical phrases and talking points often refer to policy proposals that have been under discussion for a decade.

It’s not always clear that the politician who is talking about, say, using a "deportation force" or telling people to "leave and come back" is aware that he’s talking about actual policies. Especially when that candidate is Donald Trump. But just as often, the politician is sending a deliberate signal — using a phrase that can appear to promise different things to different groups of people.

Many of these terms raise more questions than they answer (what the heck does a "secure border" look like?). But in most cases, a politician who uses them has just given you a clue about what he’d do in office — or, in Donald Trump’s case, what the people around him think he should do.

Keep this on hand, and you basically have a decoder ring to figure out what the hell any politician is talking about — in some cases (ahem), perhaps better than he does himself.


Deportation force

The US already has a "deportation force." It’s called the Enforcement and Removal Operations division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

ICE raid fugitive operations Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty

There are thousands of federal agents working with 24 field offices around the US whose job is to apprehend, detain, and deport unauthorized immigrants. This force is in addition to the Border Patrol agents who are free to apprehend any suspected unauthorized immigrant within 100 miles of the border, and the local law enforcement officials who may surreptitiously look for people who might be unauthorized so they can jail them and ask for federal assistance.

Since 9/11, the federal government has developed what the Migration Policy Institute calls a "formidable machinery," capable of deporting at least 400,000 unauthorized immigrants a year. But that machinery has been used in many different ways: to conduct huge, high-profile raids that would make it clear to the public that the government was doing something; to maximize the efficiency of deportations; and now to "prioritize" certain types of unauthorized immigrants and refrain from deporting others.

Donald Trump’s campaign website says that he’d triple the number of ICE agents, creating an even more formidable "deportation force." But the question is what they’d be used for — how many immigrants would be deported, and whether they’d be deported in a way designed to make other immigrants feel afraid.


Fair and humane

Donald Trump describes how he’d treat unauthorized immigrants as "fair and humane." He has used it indifferently to apply to allowing such individuals to remain in the country, and to deporting them and their children too (perhaps regardless of citizenship of those children).


Deporting criminals

Being in the US without papers is not a crime. But a lot of people think it is. So promising to deport "criminals" has the virtue of making it sound to the base like you’re promising to deport all unauthorized immigrants — while, in practice, just being a continuation of Obama’s current deportation policy.

The Obama administration’s No. 1 priority has been to deport unauthorized immigrants in the US who commit crimes. They’ve spent several years going back and forth with advocates about which crimes are serious enough to merit deportation (for example, whether someone should be deported for driving without a license in a state where he couldn’t get a license because of his immigration status).

ICE raid arrest

But as long as the United States is literally able to deport a murderer, rapist, etc., to his or her home country, it does so. So promising to deport "criminals" isn’t necessarily much of a change at all.


Mass deportation

Trump mass deportation screencap

No one likes the phrase "mass deportation." Even Donald Trump at his most extreme didn’t like to use the phrase. But if you’re calling for a concerted effort, over a period of 18 to 24 months, to find and deport all 11 million unauthorized immigrants from the US — as Trump was until recently — it’s hard to avoid the label.

Of course, there’s a lot of room between deporting all of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the US and deporting none of them. Some argue that President Obama practiced "mass deportation" during his first years in office, when he deported 400,000 unauthorized immigrants a year, most of whom didn’t have serious criminal records.

Image credit: Donald J. Trump via Twitter



Mitt Romney

The hottest immigration buzzword of 2012, made famous by then-Republican nominee Mitt Romney, has fallen into disuse in 2016. But the idea behind it might be coming back.

Self-deportation, otherwise called "attrition through enforcement," is a theory that you make life so hard for unauthorized immigrants currently in the US that they decide to leave on their own, so you can shrink the unauthorized population without wasting billions of dollars on mass deportation.

Whether that theory would work is unproven, but it’s an appealing option to politicians who just want immigrants to go away without the bad budget outlays and bad optics of deporting all of them. It even allows them to hold out the possibility that once "the illegal population has measurably diminished" (in the words of National Review), the unauthorized immigrants who stuck it out will be rewarded with eventual legal status.

Image credit: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty


Secure the border

border militarization map Joss Fong/Vox

"Securing the border" means even less than "amnesty" does. It’s extremely difficult to measure border security, and even harder to agree on an acceptable standard for what counts as "secure."

The Obama administration measures border security by how many immigrants it has caught after they cross the border. By that standard, the border is as secure as it’s ever been.

Chart of apprehensions at the US/Mexico border, 2000-2014. Department of Homeland Security

Republicans are, to say the least, unconvinced. So what’s a better way to do it?

For some, border security is about the resources the government is spending there: more agents patrolling the border, more surveillance drones, more fencing (or walling)90 percent.

But there are also a lot of people, and politicians, who picture a "secure border" as an impregnable one. Indeed, for some, the fact that people are able to cross the border at all is a bad sign — even if they get caught. (The 2014 "border crisis" was spurred by thousands of people turning themselves in to Border Patrol to apply for asylum.)

So for them, a "wall" — or something else that makes it literally impossible to enter the US without papers — is the only acceptable solution.

This is impossible, and everyone who’s thought seriously about border security agrees it’s impossible. So when politicians call for a secure border, the question is whether they have a goal in mind — or whether they’re promising something they can’t deliver.

Image credit: Joss Fong/Vox


Secure the border first

Rubio and Trump

"Securing the border first" is a traditional dodge to avoid any discussion of what to do with unauthorized immigrants currently in the US, used by Republican politicians from Marco Rubio to, now, Donald Trump.

The theory is that the federal government needs to prove to skeptical Americans that it can control its borders; once it’s established that trust, America can have an open debate about what to do with people who’ve already settled in the US.

It’s a successful dodge because it’s something people can agree on even if they disagree on other things — such as, for example, what a secure border would look like.

"Secure the border first" can be used as a fig leaf for a legalization program — as the Senate "Gang of Eight" originally proposed in 2013 — or it can be a way to ensure that immigrants are never legalized because the standard for a secure border is unattainably high.

But the other question — which is just as important — that the "secure the border first" dodge leaves unanswered is what happens to unauthorized immigrants while the border is being secured. This question is almost never answered to anyone’s satisfaction.

Theoretically, "secure the border first" might imply that deportations of unauthorized immigrants living in the US would stop entirely (though that’s tremendously unlikely). It could mean that deportations of unauthorized immigrants increase substantially, and that the government passes other laws designed to inspire unauthorized immigrants to "self-deport," so that by the time the border is ruled secure, there aren’t many unauthorized immigrants left to deal with anyway. Or it could be anywhere in between.

Image credit: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty


Wall, build a

People viewed through the US/Mexico border fence in Tijuana. John Moore/Getty Images

The US-Mexico border is 1,954 miles long.

There is fencing, of some sort, across 650 of those miles. (Some sections of that fencing are better able to physically prevent entry than others.) The rest are guarded by some combination of border patrol agents, cameras, and drones.

Donald Trump wants to upgrade from the fence to a "big, beautiful wall."

This wall presumably wouldn’t stretch literally the entire 1,954 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific without interruption: People cross the border legally every day at authorized ports of entry for work and visiting, and if anything, the lines at border crossings like El Paso indicate those crossings are too constricted.

But it might not even cover the whole area where crossing is illegal. On a handful of occasions during his presidential run, Trump has alluded to the idea that he’d only need to build a wall across half of the border — because the other half would be impassable terrain, both for construction equipment and for would-be immigrants.

That’s pretty similar to what the Obama administration has been saying for a while. It’s the strategy that the government has pursued on border security for the past two decades: concentrating resources on the parts of the border that are the easiest to cross, and hoping the terrain will deter crossings along the rest. That’s happened to some extent, but it’s also caused more people to die trying to cross impossible stretches of Arizona desert.

It’s not clear how serious Trump is about building a wall across only part of the border: The wall is his biggest applause line, and it’s hard to imagine him giving that up. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the "wall" would only be a modest expansion of the barrier we have now.


Virtual wall

drone border

According to some reports, when Donald Trump says he’s going to build a wall, he doesn’t mean he will physically build a physical wall. He means a "virtual wall."

This isn’t as science fiction an idea as it sounds. It’s been tried recently. It failed.

In 2006, the Bush administration awarded a $2.1 billion, three-year deal to Boeing for work on a project under the Secure Border Initiative called "SBInet" — which had originally been referred to as a "virtual fence." Boeing was supposed to build 300 radar towers along the border, able to sense when anyone crossed.

It was a huge boondoggle. DHS eventually gave up on the Secure Border Initiative entirely in 2011, after several government reports indicated that the project had an unclear timeline, bad management, and big cost overruns. The Obama administration has instead used cameras and surveillance drones to monitor the border.

The problem with this — or with any sort of virtual wall — is that surveillance doesn’t prevent people from crossing; it just makes it easier for the government to apprehend them afterward. The appeal of a wall, especially as opposed to a fence, is that it’s supposed to prevent anyone from entering the US who isn’t supposed to.

Hyping a few extra drones as a "virtual wall" might make it easier to accomplish, but it’s unlikely to satisfy the people who really want that wall built.




Let’s be real here: "Amnesty" is just the word used to describe any immigration policy a politician doesn’t like.

Some define amnesty as anything that would let unauthorized immigrants become citizens. Some define it as creating a new kind of legal status for unauthorized immigrants (as opposed to changing the law so that more of them can apply for forms of legal status that already exist). Some define it as anything that would allow immigrants who are currently unauthorized to stay in the country legally. And some define it as allowing unauthorized immigrants to stay in the country at all.

The last time Congress considered an immigration reform bill, in 2013, opponents called it amnesty — but supporters countered that the real amnesty would be not passing the bill and allowing people to stay in the shadows.

If a politician tells you he’s for amnesty, that’s noteworthy (let me know, so I can write about it). If he tells you he’s against amnesty, it just means he’s a politician.

Image credit: Getty



It’s impossible for unauthorized immigrants currently in the US to "get legal." Many of them don’t qualify for any of the visas the government hands out; even those who might be eligible for legal status under, for example, marriage get disqualified because they’ve been in the US illegally. (Usually they are required to leave for several years before applying for legal status, though there are waivers in certain cases.)

So if someone wanted to take the bulk of unauthorized immigrants living in the US and give them a way to become legal immigrants, there are two ways to do it.

One way to legalize unauthorized immigrants is what President Reagan did in 1986, or what’s been proposed as part of the "comprehensive immigration reform" bill in 2013: Create a new kind of legal status and allow unauthorized immigrants currently in the US to apply for it. (That status would either be permanent residence or would eventually lead to citizenship, depending on who’s proposing it.)

The other way is more subtle — though possibly more limited. It would remove the barriers that currently exist to legal status for unauthorized immigrants, which would allow them to apply for green cards, work visas, or other legal certification while staying in the US.

Few Republican politicians are still willing to endorse "legalization" in so many words. But when they hint that there could be a way to "deal with" or "address" the unauthorized population, they’re either talking about deportation or this.


Path to citizenship

naturalization Getty Images

This refers to a legalization program that ultimately allows unauthorized immigrants to get green cards and apply for naturalization.

As with "legalization," though, there can be a semantics game here — a politician might promise not to "create a special path to citizenship" but might support changing existing law to allow unauthorized immigrants to apply for legal statuses that already exist, which would eventually allow them to apply for citizenship.

Image credit: John Moore/Getty


Leave and come back

A woman has her photo taken for a visa at the US Consulate in Ciudad Juarez. Joe Raedle/Newsmakers via Getty

When Donald Trump says that people who are here in the United States illegally won’t be able to "get legal" unless they "leave and come back" ... well, he could just be ignorant of the fact that there are laws that prevent them from doing exactly that.

Or he could be making a reference to a policy that several Republicans, including his running mate, Mike Pence, advocated for back in the mid-2000s: a "touchback" style of legalization.

Under touchback, unauthorized immigrants would be able to apply for legal status. But they’d have to go back to their home countries first, apply from there, and then reenter once their applications were approved.

To its proponents, this sounds great: a way to screen out undesirable immigrants and just undo all the mistakes that led to having 11 million people in the US without papers to begin with.

But it’s not at all clear how many people would voluntarily leave the US knowing they might not be able to come back. So in practice, touchback might solve the problem of people who want to get legal status not being able to get it, but it wouldn’t be able to solve the problem of having unauthorized immigrants in the US.

Image credit: Joe Raedle/Newsmakers via Getty

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