Press Release

RELEASE: Staying Put but Still in the Shadows

No Evidence of "Self-Deportation" Found in Study of Restrictive Immigration Laws

Read the full report here.

Listen to today’s press call here.

Washington, D.C. — The Center for American Progress today released “Staying Put but Still in the Shadows: Undocumented Immigrants Remain in the Country Despite Strict Laws,” on a press call with the author, Leah Muse-Orlinoff, as well as Lt. Paco Balderrama of the Oklahoma City Police Department; Lourdes Villanueva, director of farmworker advocacy at the Redlands Christian Migrant Association in Florida; and Angela Maria Kelley, Vice President for Immigration Policy and Advocacy at the Center for American Progress.

With more than 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the country, a consensus has emerged that the current immigration system is broken and badly needs mending. In the absence of federal legislation providing a coherent immigration policy, states have taken it upon themselves to enforce their way to a solution. Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama recently took matters into their own hands by passing laws designed to criminalize virtually all activity engaged in by undocumented immigrants. This patchwork of state and local laws is driven by a strategy known by immigration restrictionists as “attrition through enforcement.” The goal is to create a climate of fear and make life so difficult for immigrants that they will self-deport.

Based on the experiences of immigrants in Oklahoma City, and in more recent cases such as in Arizona after S.B. 1070, we find that:

  • Most unauthorized immigrants make the decision to stay in the country despite attempts to drive them out.The proliferation of state-level anti-immigrant laws has not changed the calculus for immigrants when it comes to choosing to stay here or return home.
  • At best, anti-immigrant laws simply drive immigrants from one area to another—say from one county to the next or from one state to the next—rather than from the country. At worst, they further isolate immigrants from the communities they live in and from local law enforcement, while driving families deeper into the shadows.

The reasons behind their decisions to stay include:

  • Most undocumented immigrants have been in the country for 10 years or more and the majority live in family units with children, meaning that they are well-settled into American life, making it less likely that they would want to leave.
  • The costs of a return trip also are too steep for most people.
  • Finally, the stark lack of opportunities in the migrants’ home countries—which pushed them to enter the United States outside of legal status in the first place—have not gone away, leaving them with little reason to believe that life would be better there than in the United States.

Instead of burdensome state and local legislation, sensible policy solutions lie with the federal government and with Congress, which has the power to pass comprehensive immigration reform, bringing immigrants out of the shadows to vet them in a secure and orderly way rather than further criminalizing them. Reforming the legal visa system will help diminish the impetus for clandestine migration in the first place. Revamping the cumbersome, slow, and backlogged system will curtail illegal entry and promote the complementary goals of economic growth and family unification. Rather than unsuccessfully trying to drive unauthorized immigrants out of the country, we should work to integrate them, which will keep families together, improve community safety, and better the economy all at the same time.

Read the full report here.

Listen to today’s press call here.

To speak to experts on this topic, please contact Christina DiPasquale at 202.481.8181 or [email protected].


The Center for American Progress is a nonpartisan research and educational institute dedicated to promoting a strong, just and free America that ensures opportunity for all. We believe that Americans are bound together by a common commitment to these values and we aspire to ensure that our national policies reflect these values. We work to find progressive and pragmatic solutions to significant domestic and international problems and develop policy proposals that foster a government that is "of the people, by the people, and for the people."