As Ariz. votes, is "self-deportation" more than a slogan?

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally at Tri-City Christian Academy in Chandler, Arizona, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Mitt Romney
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

As Republican voters in Arizona head to the polls today to decide who should be the party's nominee for president, candidates have been talking tough on immigration.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said he thinks the Grand Canyon state's controversial immigration law should be something for the rest of the country to embrace.

"I think you see a model in Arizona," Romney said at the CNN sponsored debate last week in Mesa, Arizona, near Phoenix.

Arizona in 2010 passed a law giving police broad new powers to crack down on illegal immigrants, though the more controversial aspects of the law have been held up by court challenges. Supporters of the law say that by making life difficult for illegal immigrants who have already entered the country, they will choose to leave rather than to stay amid constant fear of getting caught.

The concept is known as "self-deportation," though deportation by definition is involuntary. Advocates of the idea call it "attrition through enforcement."

Romney likes the idea and said so in an earlier debate.

"We're not going to round people up," Romney said in late January. "The answer is self-deportation."

For Romney, it is unrealistic to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, but for them to leave on their own is more likely.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich attacked Romney over the idea that "grandmothers" would self-deport.

One of the leading men behind Romney's plan of attrition through enforcement is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. The former law professor who served in the Bush administration at the Justice Department under John Ashcroft is one of the key authors of the Arizona law and a similar measure in Alabama.

Kobach, who has endorsed Romney and serves as an informal adviser to the candidate, said "the idea is not rocket science."

"If you enforce the law more forcefully," Kobach told Hotsheet, "illegal aliens make the rational decision to return to their home country."

Kobach wants the U.S. to take the same approach as Arizona and Alabama.

"Arizona has become a model at what the U.S. should be doing at the federal level," Kobach said in a telephone interview, and he thinks Romney is the man to do it.

But not everyone agrees.

"There are consequences of intimidating people," said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at the New York University Law School. He said those consequences include crimes going unreported and children being pulled from school, leaving groups of people uneducated.

Kobach dismissed the culture of fear.

"They fear getting caught if they break the law, but that's not a culture of fear, that's the law," he said. Kobach added that it is illegal immigration that scares him: "There's nothing scary about the rule of law. A really scary situation is an outbreak of lawlessness."

At a debate in Florida, Romney offered some details behind self-deportation. He said a national E-Verify workplace authorization system is necessary to ensure that only legal residents can obtain jobs.

"People decide they can do better by going home because they can't find work here because they don't have legal documentation to allow them to work here," Romney said in January.

Kobach told Hotsheet that E-Verify is a major component, but just one of many parts. He called for federal raids of work sites, and stronger local and federal law enforcement cooperation, which would enable local police to ask immigration status.

But do undocumented immigrants actually leave? Kobach said they do.

He pointed to Alabama. He said the unemployment rate dropped 2.1 percent since that state passed its tough immigration law in October 2011, compared to a .5 percentage reduction in the national unemployment. He said immigrants self-deported -- probably to a neighboring state -- leaving jobs for Americans.

But media reports detail a shortage of workers for factories and farms and, recently, that immigrants have been trickling back into the state.

Skeptics say there is no proof that self-deportation occurs.

"We have seen no evidence of attrition through enforcement," Chisti said.

Tracking the number of undocumented immigrants is difficult. Pew Hispanic Center conducted a random sample and found that entire undocumented population in the U.S. has decreased from its peak of 12.5 million in 2007 to 11.2 million to 2010, probably due to the lagging economy. The study also found that four states saw a significant decrease in its undocumented population, and although Arizona did see a decline, it was not as much as New York, Florida, Virginia and Colorado.

Even Kobach admitted that it's a hard phenomenon to document.

"We're dealing with anecdotal evidence. It's hard to tell for both sides of the coin," he said.

Chisti boiled self-deportation down to campaign-season rhetoric and dismissed that it is a real solution. "It makes politicians feel good about themselves; it's a good sound bite and it intimidates people," Chisti told Hotsheet.

Steve Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which is promoting self-deportation, said the goal is not to see a 100 percent decrease in unauthorized immigration, but to reduce the number of undocumented immigrants over time, and that it will take some time.

"I think the goal would be to be to turn it from a national crisis to a national nuisance," Camarota said.

But Chisti said that even with record numbers of deportations under President Obama, "a very small number of people leave. So people take chances."

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    Leigh Ann Caldwell is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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