Self-Deportation Nation

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See all articles by K-Sue Park

K-Sue Park

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: May 10, 2019


“Self-deportation” is a concept to explain the removal strategy of making life so unbearable for a group that its members will leave a place. The term is strongly associated with recent state and municipal attempts to “attack every aspect of an illegal alien’s life,” including the ability to find employment and housing, drive a vehicle, make contracts, and attend school. However, self-deportation has a longer history, one that predates and made possible the establishment of the United States. As this Article shows, American colonists pursued this indirect approach to remove native peoples as a prerequisite for establishing and growing their settlements. The new nation then adopted this approach to Indian removal and debated using self-deportation to remove freed slaves; later, states and municipalities embraced self-deportation to keep blacks out of their jurisdictions and drive out the Chinese. After the creation of the individual deportation system, the logic of self-deportation began to work through the threat of direct deportation. This threat burgeoned with Congress’s expansion of the grounds of deportability during the twentieth century and affects the lives of an estimated 22 million unauthorized persons in the United States today.

This Article examines the mechanics of self-deportation and tracks the policy’s development through its application to groups unwanted as members of the American polity. The approach works through a delegation of power to public and private entities who create subordinating conditions for a targeted group. Governments have long used preemption as a tool to limit the power they cede to these entities. In the United States, this pattern of preemption establishes federal supremacy in the arena of removal: Cyclically, courts have struck down state and municipal attempts to adopt independent self-deportation regimes, and each time, the executive and legislative branches have responded by building up the direct deportation system. The history of self-deportation shows that the specific property interests driving this approach to removal shifted after abolition, from taking control of lands to controlling labor by placing conditions upon presence.

This Article identifies subordination as a primary mode of regulating migration in America, which direct deportations both supplement and fuel. It highlights the role that this approach to removal has played in producing the landscape of uneven racial distributions of power and property that is the present context in which it works. It shows that recognizing self-deportation and its relationship to the direct deportation system is critical for understanding the dynamics of immigration law and policy as a whole.

Keywords: Immigration law, Jurisprudence, Law and history, Legal history

Suggested Citation

Park, K-Sue, Self-Deportation Nation (May 10, 2019). Harvard Law Review, Vol. 132, No. 7, p. 1878, 2019, Available at SSRN:

K-Sue Park (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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