Mitt Romney
The landmark Massachusetts health care law signed by then-governor Mitt Romney has extended coverage to more residents and boosted self-reported health but has done little to control mounting costs, a new report found. REUTERS

Mitt Romney elaborated on his immigration policies during Monday night's debate in Florida by advocating a system of self-deportation, embracing a concept that was tested and subsequently discarded under President George W. Bush.

Romney has taken a hard line on immigration, denouncing measures like the DREAM act as amnesty and touting the endorsment of Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who created the blueprint for a series of tough new state immigration laws. When asked on Monday about his plan for curtailing the number of immigrants who are living in America illegally, Romney called for measures that would encourage those immigrants to turn themselves in.

The answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they can do better by going home because they can't find work here because they don't have legal documentation to allow them to work here, Romney said. And so we're not going to round people up.

Romney Adopts Bush Policy

The Bush administration offered essentially the same rationale for its unsuccessful self-deportation program. Immigration and Customs Enforcement placed advertisements in Spanish-language newspapers and radio stations urging undocumented immigrants to voluntarily present themselves to authorities. A mere eight people registered during a three week trial.

Immigration officials said the program allowed immigrants facing deportation to avoid being placed in detention while giving the government an alternative to armed raids on homes and businesses. It would have applied to immigrants who were in the country illegally but had no criminal records.

It provides an alternative to what many have criticized us for, which is the way in which we conduct fugitive operations, which are targeted enforcement actions at people's residences, places of business or other places that we can find them, James Hayes, then the acting director for Immigration and Customs Enforcement's office of Detention and Removal Operations, told National Public Radio in August of 2008.

But immigration advocates said that immigrants had little incentive to use the program. Immigration attorneys also noted that thousands of immigrants are deported each year without having appeared at a court hearing, so some immigrants who opted for self-deportation might do so despite having a legal case to remain in the U.S.

This is simply not an effective way to run an enforcement program, Charles Kuck, then president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said at the time.

National Identification Card

Romney also seemed to call for a national identification card, saying that his administration would tighten enforcement with a card that indicates who's here illegally. The idea of issuing everyone in America, both citizens and immigrants, a card containing biometric information like fingerprints surfaced in 2010, the last time Congress attempted to tackle comprehensive immigration reform.

Civil liberties advocates attacked the idea as an invasion of personal privacy, and other critics charged that the cost and logistics involved would be overwhelming. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies, said a national identification card would be unnecessary.

I'm not against it in principal, I just think as a practical matter we don't need reinvent the wheel, Krikorian said. We need to improve our ID system, there's no question about it. The only question really is do we want a single federally issued ID card or do we want to just use the existing system we have of state driver's licenses and improve it.

Romney mentioned the national ID along with E-Verify, a program under which employers must check the immigration status of new hires, as mechanisms for ensuring that undocumented immigrants would self-deport after they find they can't get work here. Lawmakers in states like Georgia and Alabama made similar arguments in favor of harsh new immigration laws, although they later faced criticism from farmers who said they could not find enough laborers to harvest crops.

It's about making the opportunities so limited that people will not be able to stay here, said Audrey Singer, an immigration policy expert at the Brookings Institution. I think [Romney] was trying to play it both ways, like I'm not going to round up people but I think people who are squeezed out of enough opportunities will not be able to stay on their own.