Legalize Them All!

The United States currently faces a tremendous challenge with the presence of eleven million people who do not have the legal right to be here. Some of these eleven million undocumented migrants have been in this country for decades; many have U.S. citizen children, spouses, and parents. Many remember no home other than the United States. There are three general policy responses to this challenge: 1) Deport them all; 2) Attrition through enforcement; and 3) Legalization for all. Let’s briefly consider each of these.

Deport Them All

The first policy option of deporting all undocumented migrants carries an astronomical human and economic cost. The Center for American Progress estimated the cost $200 billion. This figure, which does not take into account the economic impact on U.S. businesses and the U.S. Treasury associated with the loss of productive labor and taxes, amounts to more than three times the annual budget of the Department of Homeland Security of $60 billion and eight times the annual budget of the Department of Justice of $24 billion. More shocking than the economic cost are the social costs. Mass deportation would require raiding schools, homes and worksites, would tear apart families, and would be yet another stain on the history of the United States.

Attrition Through Enforcement

The second policy option of attrition through enforcement describes the current practice of deporting 400,000 immigrants a year and facilitating cooperation between law enforcement officials and immigration enforcement agents. The goal of this strategy is to make life difficult enough for undocumented migrants that they will opt to return home. Proponents argue that once undocumented migrants are unable to obtain employment, driver’s licenses, or housing, they will return to their countries of origin.

This approach is not working. Instead of preventing undocumented migrants from working, more stringent systems lead to more criminal organizations becoming involved in the production of fake documents that migrants can use to work. Attrition through enforcement does not work in large part because there are too many people in the United States that do not want it to work. These people include employers who depend on undocumented migrants for their labor power, the family members of undocumented migrants, and advocates for immigrants that recognize the valuable contributions of immigrants to our society. Instead of leading to massive self-deportation, attrition through enforcement exacerbates human rights violations in the United States.

S.B. 1070, the much-disputed bill in Arizona, has as its central goal attrition through enforcement. Arizona does not have the law enforcement capacity to deport the half a million undocumented migrants in the state. Proponents of S.B. 1070 hope that the tactic of using police officers to enforce immigration law will create enough fear in undocumented communities that those who are not deported will leave on their own. Using police officers to enforce immigration law has its own problems: 1) It breaks down the trust between communities and police, making this a strategy unpopular among police officers and 2) It leads to civil rights violations insofar as police officers cannot distinguish between legal permanent residents and undocumented migrants.

Legalization for All

Legalization for all is the approach advocated by immigrant rights groups throughout the United States. It is the most cost-effective approach: the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the legalization program proposed in 2006 would have cost $54 billion, yet would have generated $66 billion in revenue. More importantly, a path to legalization for all undocumented migrants would greatly reduce the human rights violations generated through the current policy of attrition through enforcement.

Legalization for all would improve wages and working conditions for everyone, as unscrupulous employers would not be able to take advantage of the undocumented status of migrants. Legalization for all would make the United States safer by allowing all undocumented migrants to come out of the shadows and obtain proper documentation to work, to drive vehicles, and to participate in U.S. society. Legalization for all would allow U.S. citizens to remain with their families and not to feel threatened by the possibility of deportation. Legalization for all would take us a long way towards fulfilling the human rights of migrants in the United States. Legalization for all is our best policy option.

Tanya Maria Golash-Boza is an Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas. She blogs at




Tanya Golash-Boza is the author of: Yo Soy Negro Blackness in PeruImmigration Nation: Raids, Detentions and Deportations in Post-9/11 Americaand Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States. Her new book Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor, and Global Capitalism will be published by NYU Press in 2015.