The easiest way to win a debate is to get the other side to accept your terms before it’s even begun. Even mentioning, say, “death panels,” a shadowy “axis of evil,” a “government takeover of healthcare,” ”clean coal,” or “illegal immigrants” is to assume without further discussion that these things exist at all.
They do not.
The phrase “illegal alien” is as inaccurate as it is dangerous, and should be recognized for the slur that it is. “Illegal” is not only demeaning and potentially harmful to the very large population of very real people it slanders, but to the immigration “debate” (such as it is at the moment) as a whole.
We would like to see “illegal” replaced throughout all public discourse with the more accurate “undocumented.” Here’s why.
Immigration violators are not criminals.
Unauthorized presence in the United States, in and of itself, is not a crime.
Although the words “illegal” and “criminal” are all too often combined in the same sentence by those who would like to have you forget this, the national conversation about immigration will never move forward until we can agree that “illegal” immigrants are not “guilty” of anything.
Criminals, by definition, violate our criminal statutes. Undocumented individuals are in the United States in violation of certain provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act, the civil code which governs American immigration law.
This may all sound very lawyerly, but it is an absolutely critical distinction. Perhaps the easiest way to remember it is to imagine two cars on the highway: one being recklessly driven by someone who has spent her evening drinking heavily, and the other being driven 15 miles over the posted speed limit by an otherwise careful driver. The former is committing a crime for which she may well be facing jail time and a criminal record if convicted, while the latter is merely committing a civil infraction which will result in nothing more than a fine and a bump in her car insurance payments.
Immigration law is not concerned with criminal concepts of guilt or innocence, but merely the administrative classifications of “inadmissibility” and “deportability.” Immigration violators are “charged” with civil offenses such as “unlawful presence” under INA 237(a)(1)(B). They are not subject to criminal sentencing, but rather to administrative punishments such as deportation and/or exclusion from future admission to the U.S. The only point at which they become subject to criminal penalties is upon re-entry after deportation.
It is worth noting that House Republicans briefly attempted to rewrite federal immigration law to criminalize the mere physical presence of undocumented individuals during the 2005 debate over H.R. 4437, but this didn’t get too far. It’s one thing to call people “illegal,” but even Congress could see the idiocy of actually criminalizing their existence.
Which brings us to:
Immigration violators are people.
Stigmatizing the undocumented as “illegal” does nothing but actively encourage abuse and neglect of an already-vulnerable population. It needlessly criminalizes the very existence of an entire class of human beings, and gives us license to ignore, exploit, and abuse our neighbors, employees, and fellow taxpayers.
Would you describe a speeder as “criminal,” “felonious,” “illegitimate,” “illicit,” “lawless,” “bad,” “evil,” “immoral,” “shameful,” “sinful,” “unethical,” “wicked,” “wrong,” “reprehensible,” or “unprincipled”? Of course not. We all speed sometimes, and most people would have to agree that straying a few MPH over the limit does not make someone an inherently bad person. Yet these words are all recognized as synonymous or related to ”illegal.” It is hard to avoid these associations, as those who would prefer to have you maintain them well know.
The strongly negative associations carried by a word like “illegal” make it easier to write off and dehumanize every aspect of an “illegal” human being’s life. “Undocumented” properly shifts the focus to only one small part of it.
Oh, and for what it’s worth:
Nearly half of the undocumented population now in the United States entered legally.
Continuing to refer to the undocumented as “illegal” perpetuates the myth that this is a population of “fence jumpers” who “snuck in” to the U.S. In fact, the most recent estimates from the Government Accountability Office indicate that 40-45 percent of the current undocumented population entered with valid visas (typically as tourists or students) and were properly inspected prior to their lawful admission. Our immigration laws treat these violators very differently from those who entered without inspection. Villifying them all as “illegal” does not.
Go “undocumented” today!
I truly believe that we will never be able to have a reasonable discussion about the future of immigration policy in this country for as long as we continue to use the “I-word.” So the next time you catch yourself starting to say “illegal” while discussing immigration in America, please try out “undocumented.”
It is time to change what we talk about when we talk about immigration. How can we ever hope to mean what we say until we say exactly what we mean?