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'Illegal immigrants'

Over the years, I've gotten a lot of criticism for preferring the term "illegal immigrants" rather than embracing "undocumented immigrants," or something similar. Nicole at PostBourgie explains my thinking better than I could:

For the record, I don’t like the term “illegals.” If you’re going to call people “illegals”, let’s be fair and apply it to everyone who has ever done anything illegal. That would include me, you, Lou Dobbs, jaywalkers, underage drinkers and almost everyone I know over the age of 10.

But “illegal immigrant”? The simple fact is that if one immigrates without a visa, or stays after the visa expires, that is illegal. I’m not saying there aren’t justifiable reasons for doing so, but that doesn’t make it any less against the law.

Adam Serwer agrees. And it's not as if the word games fool anyone. The people who need to be convinced of comprehensive immigration reform -- which must include a path to legal status for illegal immigrants -- are angry about illegal immigration. Trying to paper over that won't help, and might actually hurt.

Better to confront it directly: Yes, there's illegal immigration, and yes, illegal immigrants should have to pay fees and learn English, but no, it's not good for American workers or the American economy to have 12 million illegal immigrants living in the shadows, and no, deporting 12 million people is not a realistic option. Put differently, there are two fundamental facts here: Yes, there are illegal immigrants, and yes, we need to find a way to make them legal residents.

By Ezra Klein  | October 12, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Immigration  
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Comments

interesting watching the Lou Dobbs interview last week with Lawrence O'Donnell. I found it especially interesting how the author from the Nation (who seemed very much overwhelmed by being on camera) never did reply to the fact that technically Mr Dobbs never did directly hire illegal immigrants. Her calling him a hypocrite would basically (as this post suggests) call us all hypocrites if we ever frequented a restaurant that had them as busboys and girls, had them working housekeeping in a hotel we stayed at etc.


Either way its going to be hard with almost 10% unemployment to bring them "out from the shadows". Whether anyone wants to admit it or not if we legalize them there will be several issues that will be next to impossible to deal with including
prices increasing due to higher wages paid to now legalized workers.

Posted by: visionbrkr | October 12, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Whatever we call them, I would just like to stop making the term coterminous with Hispanic. A significant number of "illegal" immigrants are people who have overstayed their (legitimate) visas and simply remained here--some 45% of all illegal immigrants by some estimates. They are Polish, Irish, Middle Eastern, etc. There doesn't seem to be very much public backlash about these non-Hispanic illegal immigrants. I think we can only discuss the issue dispassionately if we acknowledge the range of people who have undocumented status in this country. We are in desperate of need comprehensive immigration reform. We are indeed a country of immigrants and must embrace that history and even expand our outreach. We will also most certainly need a period of amnesty (yes, I'll use that term) to wipe the slate clean of years of bad policy and oversight, and then start anew, to reflect the conditions of our times.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | October 12, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Unless I'm sorely mistaken, it's not actually illegal (in the sense of criminality) to be an illegal immigrant in the USA, except under local laws (such as those that apply in Arizona).

Posted by: albamus | October 12, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

"Illegal in the sense of criminality" doesn't mean anything. Rolling through a stop sign isn't a crime, but it is still illegal.

Posted by: tps12 | October 12, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Why the requirement to learn English? Legal immigrants aren't required to learn English. As a native born citizen, I'm not legally obligated to teach my own kids English. I mean, sure, I recommend that everyone in the country be functional with English, but why should it be a law? Lack of a universal language hasn't pushed Switzerland into the stone age, either economically or politically.

Posted by: JonathanTE | October 12, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

@tps12: There is a meaningful distinction between civil violations of the law and criminal infractions. In the state where I live, traffic violations (like rolling through a stop sign) are summary offenses. These are the least serious crimes (the more serious ones are misdemeanors or felonies), but they are technically crimes. I suspect that is true in most states.

Posted by: QuiteAlarmed | October 12, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

I don't think the preference of 'undocumented' over 'illegal' is necessarily a political calculation to 'paper over' the real issue. I think its more of an attempt (at least in my experience) to avoid stigmatizing people as being 'illegal' - rather than their immigration status being illegal. Using this 'illegal' language reinforces the huge misconception that undocumented folks are all drug traffickers, terrorists, or gang members instead of workers, parents, neighbors etc. Illegal immigrant is accurate but dehumanizing to some degree, making it easier for the paranoid fringes to 'otherize' people living in the US illegally (which is how i would refer to them...put the PEOPLE first.)

Posted by: jmerrell1 | October 12, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,

It's certainly true that the real end here is not the revision of a term but substantive policy change. But our terms have a powerful way of guiding our virtue into vice and intensifying our vice into evil, as they norm our understanding of what is the case (thus shaping support for policy).

The term "illegal immigrant" permanently connotes an overstated sense of moral deviance & danger that operates subconsciously to desensitize us to the utter lack of proportionality of our nation's response to the presence of undocumented persons here in this country.

It does this by obviating the need to consider the significance of their undocumented presence (Why are they here? Answer: largely as economic refugees caught up in the global phenomenon of migration imposed on them by struggling local economies and/or by corporate globalization).

I know you're not unaware of these economic realities, but too much of the public is, and terms like "illegal immigrant" prey on this ignorance, especially in the cheap, soundbyte discourse that dominates the media.

Posted by: Trogdorprof | October 12, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

Oh, and the other necessary point:

Why are they here illegally? Answer: because our convoluted immigration system cannot keep up with demand (the demand of both immigrants to work here AND the demand of our economy to have them work here.)

Thus, our "illegal immigration" problem is =
Their economic desperation + our economy's demand - our nation's lack of functional immigration system.

Posted by: Trogdorprof | October 12, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

We don't need a system.

If someone wants to peacefully live and work here, let them do so, but on their own dime.

Posted by: justin84 | October 12, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

"...there will be several issues that will be next to impossible to deal with including prices increasing due to higher wages paid to now legalized workers"

Perhaps unintentionally, visionbrkr gets to the largely unmentioned nub of immigration reform opponents. They don't really want illegal immigrants deported - they want to keep them available as an exploitable labor force, which they would not be if they were legalized. In effect, they are arguing that our economy cannot function unless we have what amounts to a slave class.

Posted by: guesswhosue | October 12, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, You will find some candy under your pillow tonight. Sincerely, the liberal do-gooder PC fairy (not to be confused with the pointless post fairy)

Posted by: cdosquared5 | October 12, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

visionbrkr, I think the point the Nation reporter was trying to get across (and I agree that she isn't nearly as good on TV as Dobbs is) is that Dobbs should be held to a higher standard because he's made this his signature issue. If you're a crusader against illegal immigration, the argument goes, you should be extra diligent in finding out if the people that work for you are here legally. She's not saying Dobbs should be back in the kitchen of every restaurant he eats at checking papers, but she's not saying normal people should be doing that either. She's saying that Dobbs does something most people don't: he hires people to work for him. He also does another thing most people don't: he rails against the presence of illegal immigrants in this country and in particular their role in the workforce. Pointing out that sort of hypocrisy isn't the most damning allegation ever, but it's not completely irrellevant either, and Dobbs really should be more careful.

JonathanTE, that's exactly why I came here. Why should illegal immigrants have to learn English? I could see requiring that all legally enforceable documents be published in English (and then made available in translations if necessary).

Posted by: MosBen | October 12, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse

it's not good for American workers or the American economy to have 12 million illegal immigrants living in the shadows, and no, deporting 12 million people is not a realistic option. Put differently, there are two fundamental facts here: Yes, there are illegal immigrants, and yes, we need to find a way to make them legal residents.
-----------
One fundamental fact, proven by the 1986 amnesty: amnesty does not prevent illegal immigration but in fact encourages more of it.

Another fact: If this Administration is telling the truth, even without strong enforcement, we're seeing a substantial reduction in the number of illegal aliens in this country (Census estimates about 900,000 have left). Furthermore, this Admin. claims to have deported almost 400,000, showing that yes, illegal aliens can be deported, even when the Administration is just focusing on violent criminals.

Thirdly, you totally ignore the middle ground: attrition through enforcement. Enforce the laws against employers using programs such as eVerify and we'll have one heck of a lot fewer illegal aliens who leave because they can't get jobs.

Another fact: illegal aliens are taking jobs from 5-7 million unemployed AMERICANS. Legalization would not only give them access to welfare programs they cannot now access but would enable them to sponsor their relatives. The 1986 amnesty produced a large spike in poverty between 1996 and 2006 and today's illegal aliens account for much of the poverty recently reported among "Americans".

Posted by: Ali4 | October 12, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Oh, and the other necessary point:

Why are they here illegally? Answer: because our convoluted immigration system cannot keep up with demand (the demand of both immigrants to work here AND the demand of our economy to have them work here.)

Thus, our "illegal immigration" problem is =
Their economic desperation + our economy's demand - our nation's lack of functional immigration system.

Posted by: Trogdorprof
-----------
On the contrary, our immigration system manages to process more than ONE MILLION LEGAL immigrants each year, 15-20% of them from ONE country, Mexico.

There is no reason why the US should accept any and all who want to come here. Our immigration policy should be for OUR benefit, NOT that of other countries or immigrants. This Administration and many of the posters on this site have lost sight of that.

By the way, if there's such "demand" for illegal aliens, then how is it that employers have preferred to avoid using the legal routes to bring them here, such as H2 visas? Fact is, what employers want is NOT labor but CHEAP labor that it doesn't have to be responsible for.

Posted by: Ali4 | October 12, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

"Illegal immigrant" is basically a contradiction in terms. People who are immigrants, are here legally. That's what the word means: an "immigrant" is a lawful permanent resident. I think that the vast majority of people who use this phrase, actually meant to say "illegal alien".

I'm not sure why an oxymoron has been allowed to enter the vernacular. I guess that people don't like the term "alien", even though it seems perfectly descriptive to me.

Posted by: Interceptor402 | October 12, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

"Unless I'm sorely mistaken, it's not actually illegal (in the sense of criminality) to be an illegal immigrant in the USA, except under local laws"

yes, albumus, you ARE sorely mistaken. Overstaying ones visa is a Federal crime. Though the penalties for a visa overstay are civil, it's STILL a crime. And Illegal entry is a Federal crime subject to criminal prosecution.

And that's not to mention the crimes the average (as in not independantly wealthy) illegal alien must commit merely to get here and survive here. Crimes like using and abetting human traffikers. Or identity theft, forgery, multiple frauds including document fraud, employment fraud, tax fraud, etc.

All these people who think that illegal aliens are simply wandering trespassers looking for work ignore the damage this acceptance of criminality has on our society as a whole. YOu all also ignore the consequences of incentivizing criminality by rewarding the criminal with the very thing they were after in the first place!

Yes, albumus, illegal residency IS a crime...but one could posit that it is the *least* of their offenses.

Posted by: WilyArmadilla | October 13, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

A few points:
1. "Illegal immigrant" and "illegal alien" are meaningless terms from the standpoint of immigration law. http://immigration.change.org/blog/view/illegal_immigrant_is_the_real_euphemism Arguments that people are using the legally correct terms when they use these words are baseless. Immigration law is civil law, which allows the government to avoid the due process protections that come with criminal charges. If immigrants are truly "illegal," they should have the full due process protections of the criminal justice system. In most cases, they don't.
2. These terms were chosen by nativists years ago in a successful effort to reframe the discussion around immigration to criminalize and dehumanize immigrants. Before you can detain and deport someone who has strong ties to the community--often including citizen spouses, parents, and children--and has done nothing to warrant such treatment, you need to dehumanize them. This terminology has been part of that effort, and also a key part of actually criminalizing immigrants on a scale never before seen in this country.
3. Allies to immigrant communities can help reframe the debate, acknowledging the common humanity of people living and working in our communities, by rejecting the nativist effort to dehumanize people. This means dropping the "I-word."

Posted by: davidcbennion | October 13, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

A few points:
1. "Illegal immigrant" and "illegal alien" are meaningless terms from the standpoint of immigration law. http://immigration.change.org/blog/view/illegal_immigrant_is_the_real_euphemism Arguments that people are using the legally correct terms when they use these words are baseless. Immigration law is civil law, which allows the government to avoid the due process protections that come with criminal charges. If immigrants are truly "illegal," they should have the full due process protections of the criminal justice system. In most cases, they don't.
-------------Illegal aliens under the law do not face issues of guilt or innocence. In fact, it is upon THEM to PROVE their right to stay here, not for the government to prove that they have no such right. Deportation is NOT a "punishment" but a setting back of things to what they were before the offense occurred. That still doesn't change the fact, that when one breaks the law, one is, by definition, doing something illegal.

2. These terms were chosen by nativists years ago in a successful effort to reframe the discussion around immigration to criminalize and dehumanize immigrants. Before you can detain and deport someone who has strong ties to the community--often including citizen spouses, parents, and children--and has done nothing to warrant such treatment, you need to dehumanize them. This terminology has been part of that effort, and also a key part of actually criminalizing immigrants on a scale never before seen in this country.
--------No, the term "illegal alien" is from immigration law and is the legally correct term. It's pro-amnesty types who want to pretend that illegal aliens are "undocumented workers", when in reality, many illegal aliens HAVE documents, just not their own--and many are not "workers" either, but children.

3. Allies to immigrant communities can help reframe the debate, acknowledging the common humanity of people living and working in our communities, by rejecting the nativist effort to dehumanize people. This means dropping the "I-word."
--------Americans who reject the notion of "globalism" and "one world" refuse to accept the notion that illegal aliens are entitled to anything more than a one-way ticket home. If anything, apologists for illegal aliens ignore the real problem--the fact that illegal aliens have turned the countries they live in into places they don't want to live in. Furthermore, it's ridiculous to believe that immigration to the US is a solution to world poverty. We already accept one million LEGAL immigrants each year, but there are five BILLION people living in greater poverty than Mexico has and who are adding 80 million children each year. How has even LEGAL immigration been working out for the US? We already see from Census figures that POVERTY in the US is expanding. Since you're so hot on "humane" treatment, how is it humane to provide for illegal aliens while Americans go without?

Posted by: davidcbennio

Posted by: Ali4 | October 13, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Ali4 said:
"No, the term "illegal alien" is from immigration law and is the legally correct term."

No, read the post I linked to which shows why the term "illegal alien" has no basis in immigration law. Feel free to point to contrary sources.

WilyArmadilla said:
"yes, albumus, you ARE sorely mistaken. Overstaying ones visa is a Federal crime. Though the penalties for a visa overstay are civil, it's STILL a crime."

I don't understand how something can be a crime but not subject to criminal prosecution. If you can point to a legal source for this claim, please do. Visa overstay is not a crime.

Also, to Ezra, I'm surprised that someone who pays so much attention to media framing has so thoroughly bought into the conservative/nativist "criminalization of immigrants" narrative. It's a crime to be a worker ... really? Isn't there something wrong with this picture? It starts with language and narrative, and right now you've bought what the nativists have been selling for the last 30 years.

Posted by: davidcbennion | October 13, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Yes, there are illegal immigrants, and yes, we need to find a way to make them legal residents.

Why?

We have 15 million unemployed people in this country.

12 million illegal immigrants go home, and however many millions of jobs they were filling can now be filled by citizens. The argument that Americans won't take those jobs is ridiculous. Americans will no longer be underbid by 12 million low-wage foreigners, and our produce prices might go up - but it would be worth it.

Posted by: seraphina2 | October 13, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

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