This is going back several years, but the idea of “self-deportation” started as a joke. Two Mexican-American satirists, hoping to mock far-right, anti-immigration attitudes, came up with the phrase as a way of making conservative arguments appear foolish.
In time, however, the joke made a striking transition from satire to Republican policy. In fact, in the last presidential election, Mitt Romney famously endorsed self-deportation as a key tenet of his approach to the issue. The idea is as simple as it is cruel: if U.S. policy can make immigrants’ lives miserable enough, they’ll leave the country voluntarily, saving officials the trouble of trying to round up and deport millions of people.
After Romney lost the Latino vote on Election Day by more than 40 points, many observers – from the left, right, and center – said Romney’s embrace of self-deportation contributed to his defeat. Among those observers was none other than Donald Trump, an enthusiastic supporter of a border wall and mass deportations, but who avoids the phrase that hurt Romney.
In a curious twist, Marco Rubio, of all people, seemed quite concerned about this during last night’s debate, bringing up Trump’s criticisms of Romney several times. From the transcript:
“In 2012, Donald criticized Mitt Romney, saying that Mitt lost his election because of self-deportation. […]“My point that I made was you had criticized Mitt Romney for self-deportation. You said that his strategy of self- deportation is why he lost the election. […]“I agree we should have won and I wished we would have, but, in fact, you did criticize him for using the term ‘self-deportation.’ I mean, that’s on the record and people can look it up right now online.”
The fact that Rubio kept repeating this line – at a debate co-sponsored by Telemundo – suggested he considered it very important. I have no idea why.
As a factual matter, all of this is at least true. Romney hurt himself with the line and Trump acknowledged as much.
But the Florida senator, who helped write a comprehensive immigration reform bill before abandoning it, apparently believes Trump’s 2012 assessment is an unacceptable break with Republican orthodoxy – which warrants condemnation four years later. In other words, Trump said Romney hurt himself by saying “self-deportation” in 2012, and now Rubio finds those comments outrageous.
But why? What in the world does Rubio hope to gain by suggesting self-deportation is somehow a political winner for the GOP?
The answer, apparently, was Rubio’s hope of getting to Trump’s right on immigration. If the senator somehow ends up as his party’s nominee, keep this moment in mind.