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Border & Immigration

Study: State, Local Immigration Enforcement Doesn't Drive Self-Deportation

Attempts by state and local authorities to enforce federal immigration laws haven’t caused immigrants to voluntarily leave the United States, a new study finds.

The one exception? Maricopa County, where a federal judge found Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s tough tactics discriminatory toward Latinos.

The National Bureau of Economic Research published the findings in a working paper.


Some models of federal-local cooperation on immigration control did drive the foreign-born to move to other parts of the U.S., the authors found. But the biggest effect was on college-educated immigrants, “suggesting that aggressive enforcement policies may be missing their intended targets.”

From the paper:

“Highly educated immigrants may be exiting local areas not because they fear deportation but because they are averse to the policy climate associated with a strict enforcement regime. Undocumented immigrants directly targeted by enforcement may not have the knowledge or wherewithal to move to a safer environment, though the analysis cannot provide any direct evidence on this question.”

The data used did not allow authors to determine the legal status of those affected by the policies.

The federal government has discontinued a controversial program, 287 (g), designed to empower local authorities to identify immigrants in the country illegally and put them in deportation proceedings. The program came under harsh criticism for shifting the burden of federal immigration enforcement onto local law enforcement bodies, and for failing to fulfill the policy’s stated goal of focusing on serious criminals.

Other federal-local cooperation agreements have taken its place. The biggest, Secure Communities, is also highly contentious.


California recently passed a law prohibiting state and local law enforcement from participating in Secure Communities and other immigration enforcement programs.

That could mean more highly skilled immigrants will flock to California. The National Bureau of Economic Research paper concluded that the highly skilled are likely to concentrate in parts of the country that avoid aggressive immigration enforcement policies.

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