Solution to Arizona immigration law troubles: 'Safe passage' home?

Allowing all illegal immigrants 'safe passage' out of the country is one proposed solution to the tangle of problems presented by federal immigration reform and the Arizona immigration law.

Jae C. Hong/AP
A group of illegal immigrants who were deported to Mexico early Wednesday morning gather near the Nogales Port of Entry in Nogales, Mexico. An anti-illegal immigration group is floating the idea of 'safe passage' to let illegal immigrants leave the country freely. The goal is to resolve conflicts like those surrounding the Arizona immigration law.

With its now-suspended immigration law, Arizona sent a clear message to illegal immigrants: Pack your bags and go home. Five other state legislatures have introduced similar legislation and 20 more are considering it.

Now, a group committed to stopping illegal immigration is proposing a way to make this happen.

It's called "safe passage," and it's the idea that the US should allow – and in some cases help – the 15 million undocumented Hispanic workers believed to be residing in the US to leave the country freely.

A political action committee, Americans for Legal Immigration (AILPAC), believes safe passage could be a breakthrough idea in Capitol Hill's immigration-reform deadlock. That remains an open question. But some experts say it taps into Americans' mixture of antipathy and sympathy toward undocumented migrants, many of whom share bedrock values with conservative Americans, such as a strong work ethic and deep religious beliefs.

"I don't think most people support a mass deportation, so a safe passage speaks to a more voluntary return," says Audrey Singer, an immigration expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The complicated part for people returning has to do with opportunities abroad and opportunities here, how embedded they are socially, whether they have kids who have grown up, and how long they've been here. But there are others, especially young men, who are more footloose who are thinking of leaving or who have already left."

Tough immigration enforcement at the state level, along with the availability of work, has already had an impact on migration. As many as 100,000 undocumented workers have already left Arizona in the past two years, going either to other states or back to their home countries, according to Department of Homeland Security data.

Americans' contradictory opinions

Recent polls reveal America's contradictory views on illegal immigration.

An Arizona Republic poll released this weekend found that 55 percent of Arizonans support SB 1070, the law that would force local law-enforcement officials, during routine stops, to determine the immigration status of people they think might be illegal immigrants. (A judge temporarily halted that portion of the law in a ruling Wednesday.) National polls have found similar support for Arizona-style laws.

Yet the Arizona Republic also found that 62 percent of respondents would like to see some form of amnesty – a legalization program to make it possible for those already in the country to stay.

"What recent polls say about Americans is that they'd like to see the borders under control and would like to know that the US government is doing what they can to keep out people who are coming here illegally," says Ms. Singer. "What's happening in Arizona has highlighted that responsibility issue. But the support for legalization shows that Americans understand why immigrants come here, they understand the role they play in the economy. I think we feel differently once people are in the country."

Is it feasible?

Given the popularity of Arizona-style comprehensive immigration enforcement, ALIPAC President William Gheen says safe passage checkpoints on the border could negate the need for reform as it could calmly repatriate illegal aliens.

"If we needed buses to transport people back to destinations throughout Central America, the American public would volunteer to drive them," says Mr. Gheen, in Raleigh, N.C. "And if the president came out tomorrow and [enforced existing immigration laws], there'd be such a mass exodus that we'd have a humanitarian crisis. So the only peaceful, logical way out of this situation [is to say]: 'This party is over. You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.'"

For her part, Singer of Brookings thinks safe passage could find a political foothold. Other experts are doubtful. University of Minnesota demographer Katherine Fennelly is skeptical that any sort of immigration reform can succeed in the current political climate.

The US has once before repatriated about one million Mexicans. But it was in a different political era – between 1929 and 1939.

"We can talk about safe passage and making this sort of forced repatriation more humane, but I think it still begs a larger issue," says Ms. Fennelly, who specializes in migration policy. "It's really too bad that we're not trying to think of policies that would benefit both US-born Americans and immigrants, because it is, in fact, not impossible to craft."


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