Attrition of Illegal Immigrants through Enforcement

“It is neither wise nor realistic to round up and deport millions of illegal immigrants in the United States.”1

Attrition through enforcement has three components:

  • Stem the flow of new illegal aliens by securing the border.

  • Prioritize the deportation of illegal aliens who commit egregious crimes (drug trafficking, gang violence, document fraud rings, theft, etc.)

  • Encourage those illegal aliens here to return to their home countries by denying them access to jobs and closing loopholes in government programs that provide them access to benefits.

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) explains attrition in this way

[T]here is an alternative to mass deportation or just giving amnesty or legalization. It's called attrition. It means that when people come here, we should not provide them free education, free health care, free services…. No, if you deny them those things and you deny them jobs, first of all, people will hear that overseas and they will quit coming. Those who are already here illegally will find it hard to get by, and eventually, slowly but surely they will eventually go home….It is not massive deportation, it is not legalization. It is the one thing that will work.2

Why Will Attrition Work?

Why do illegal immigrants sneak into the country or stay illegally after a legal entry? Virtually all experts agree that the motivation for nearly all of the illegal alien population is the hope of finding work and an improved economic situation. This is not to say that some do not come for other reasons; crime, terrorism, or simply to take advantage of our freedom, but the vast majority of illegal entrants are seeking jobs. They are economic migrants, not persons fleeing religious or political persecution. We have separate ways for persons fleeing persecution to enter the country legally.

So, because aliens are coming to the U.S. seek work, the way to both discourage them from coming as well as to convince those already here illegally to return home is to adopt effective means to deny them jobs and benefits. Congress recognized this in 1986 when it made hiring illegal aliens a crime. It recognized this again ten years later when it mandated a system to verify that the work documents of new employees are legitimate and to cut off public benefits. It has continued to adhere to this concept in the 109th Congress when both Houses voted to require use of the verification system by all employers. But it is not yet the law.

The extent to which work eligibility verification is enforced and employers who hire illegal aliens are punished will determine the rate at which attrition through enforcement will happen. If verification applies only to new employees, only those illegal aliens who have lost their jobs and are looking for new work will be confronted by the new reality that they no longer will be able to work here and be motivated to leave the country. If verification applies to the existing workforce on a sliding scale allowing employers a number of years to apply it to all employees, or applying it to a sliding scale of employers depending on the size of the workforce the process of attrition also will be gradual, but more rapid.

A relatively small amount of attrition occurs already. We know this because the illegal alien population grows at a slower rate than the number of illegal aliens who enter each year. That is, each year about 850,000 illegal aliens enter the country to stay, but the illegal alien population grows by about 500,000. What happens to the difference of 350,000? A few of the 350,000 will have been rewarded with legal status through asylum or some other process. Some others will have left the country on their own initiative; others will have been apprehended by the immigration authorities and will have chosen to voluntarily depart in lieu of deportation. Others will have been apprehended and deported. In recent years the number of deportations each year has been more than 200,000 persons.

Thus, if the inflow of illegal aliens is stemmed by securing the border and ending the job magnet, the illegal alien population will begin to shrink. The addition of enforcement measures such as mandating work eligibility verification and restricting benefits to those legally present in the country will increase the rate of attrition of the illegal alien population.

Both border security and interior enforcement of our immigration laws must be pursued for attrition through enforcement to work. Those who argue that our enforcement effort must be focused on the border miss a key point. Aliens will continue to find ways of evading law enforcement as long as those who are able to avoid apprehension are able to find jobs. This means that denying job opportunities is crucial to diminishing the pressure on the border. It is also essential to reducing the number of aliens who enter with visas and no intention of leaving when they expire.

Similarly, the passage of an across-the-board mandate that employers verify the work documents of their new employees (and eventually their entire workforce) will mean that employers no longer are able to escape punishment for hiring illegal alien workers.  Under the current dysfunctional system, they can say they were duped into thinking their workers were legal by fake work documents. When fake documents are exposed by the new system, employers operating sweatshops will be forced to hire a legal workforce or face the full force of the law. As the number of employers hiring illegal alien workers is diminished, those remaining unscrupulous employers will become more exposed to enforcement actions. There are already instances of employers of illegal aliens being sent to jail. When that becomes more likely, the number of employers willing to accept that risk will drop. This will have the effect of further drying up employment opportunities for illegal alien workers. And as employment opportunities further decrease, the pressure on the border will further decrease.

While there is no single solution to ending the nation’s illegal alien crisis, there is a strategy that combines both interior and border enforcement that that can effectively stem the flow of illegal aliens and lead to the gradual attrition of those already here illegally.




[1] President Bush's plan for comprehensive immigration reform, briefing paper for 2007 State of the Union Address, (whitehouse.com consulted Dec. 2, 2007)

[2] Congressional Record (House), June 19, 2007, Page H6727.

November 2008