This summer as I was riding a ferry to the San Juan Islands, I found myself going up the stairs to the main deck from my car behind a couple of middle-aged white women who were talking about immigration.
One of them was talking to the other about the immigrants she had seen on television marching for progressive reform. She said: "One of them was holding up a sign that said, 'Illegal does not equal criminal.' And I'm thinking: 'What?'" The other woman agreed that it just made no sense.
If I were a nosier busybody who didn't mind letting people know I was eavesdropping, I'd have piped up: "When you get a speeding ticket, does that make you a criminal?" Ah, but I'm not, so I didn't. L'esprit d'escalier, indeed.
But this is one of the real problems with people like Lou Dobbs, who get all bent out of shape when you point out to them that calling undocumented immigrants "illegal aliens" is a crude form of demonization.
Lawrence Downes in the New York Times has penned the consummate retort, titled after one of the nativists' own favorite sayings, "What part of 'illegal' don't you understand?"
- America has a big problem with illegal immigration, but a big part of it stems from the word “illegal.” It pollutes the debate. It blocks solutions. Used dispassionately and technically, there is nothing wrong with it. Used as an irreducible modifier for a large and largely decent group of people, it is badly damaging. And as a code word for racial and ethnic hatred, it is detestable.
“Illegal” is accurate insofar as it describes a person’s immigration status. About 60 percent of the people it applies to entered the country unlawfully. The rest are those who entered legally but did not leave when they were supposed to. The statutory penalties associated with their misdeeds are not insignificant, but neither are they criminal. You get caught, you get sent home.
Since the word modifies not the crime but the whole person, it goes too far. It spreads, like a stain that cannot wash out. It leaves its target diminished as a human, a lifetime member of a presumptive criminal class. People are often surprised to learn that illegal immigrants have rights. Really? Constitutional rights? But aren’t they illegal? Of course they have rights: they have the presumption of innocence and the civil liberties that the Constitution wisely bestows on all people, not just citizens.
Many people object to the alternate word “undocumented” as a politically correct euphemism, and they have a point. Someone who sneaked over the border and faked a Social Security number has little right to say: “Oops, I’m undocumented. I’m sure I have my papers here somewhere.”
But at least “undocumented” — and an even better word, “unauthorized” — contain the possibility of reparation and atonement, and allow for a sensible reaction proportional to the offense. ...
Meanwhile, out on the edges of the debate — edges that are coming closer to the mainstream every day — bigots pour all their loathing of Spanish-speaking people into the word. Rant about “illegals” — call them congenital criminals, lepers, thieves, unclean — and people will nod and applaud. They will send money to your Web site and heed your calls to deluge lawmakers with phone calls and faxes. Your TV ratings will go way up.
This is not only ugly, it is counterproductive, paralyzing any effort toward immigration reform. Comprehensive legislation in Congress and sensible policies at the state and local level have all been stymied and will be forever, as long as anything positive can be branded as “amnesty for illegals.”
We are stuck with a bogus, deceptive strategy — a 700-mile fence on a 2,000-mile border to stop a fraction of border crossers who are only 60 percent of the problem anyway, and scattershot raids to capture a few thousand members of a group of 12 million.
The biggest problem with insisting on labeling other people as "illegals" is that it utterly begs the question -- which, with 12 million people now fitting the description, becomes acute -- just how appropriate and workable are the laws that make them so in the first place.
But that's an easy question to overlook when you're firmly on the other side of the divide.