Or at least, that’s about as bumper-sticker short as I can make my point.

First,  a disclaimer: I am decidedly pro-immigration.  My background and profession play on each other, strengthening my resolve to fight for the rights of those who have come here from elsewhere.

As a lawyer who focuses much of my practice in matters of US immigration, I pay close attention to the words and labels used to frame arguments in the immigration debate.


Here is my list of labels that divide, obfuscate, and malign:

Let’s look at each one.

Illegal Immigrant.  There’s currently a debate going on among journalists as to how to describe the population of people living in a country in violation of that country’s immigration laws.  You’ve got folks on one end who call them “illegal immigrants” (or just plain “illegals.”)  Others prefer “unauthorized immigrants” or “unauthorized workers.” Still others prefer “undocumented workers.” 

Technically (and legally) an “immigrant” is a person who is lawfully admitted for permanent residence.  That is, a lawful green card holder.  Since the vast majority of the population we’re talking about do not have green cards, it’s somewhat of a misnomer to even call them “immigrants.” However, it’s not realistic to expect people to understand the legal difference between immigrants and nonimmigrants as defined in the Immigration & Nationality Act.  Moreover, “immigrant” could also connote anyone who attempts to enter the United States with an intent to make the United States their permanent home (i.e., has “immigrant intent.”)  Colloquially, though a bit inaccurate as a matter of law, the word “immigrant” denotes someone who comes into a country not his own.

The problem is with the word “illegal.” As cliché as it sounds – a human being is never illegal (ningún ser humano es ilegal).  Actions can be legal or illegal.  We can speak of illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrants, any more than we can speak of driving illegally, but not illegal drivers.

But there is a deeper problem with labeling a person “illegal.” It makes it sound unrectifiable.  We hear the refrain from the right many times: “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” To which my response is, “You clearly do not understand what the word illegal means.”  Calling a person illegal dehumanizes them.  That leads to arrogance, enmity, racism, exclusion, and if left unchecked, genocide.

Even worse is calling people simply “illegal” as if the simple act of walking across a border forever taints every action that person henceforth takes.  Very few of us would be “legal” if we adopt this understanding.  

Some argue that “undocumented” is a euphemism.  To a certain extent, this may be true, but only because its meaning has been subtly shifted by the pro-immigrant crowd.  Perhaps, then, the best term is “unauthorized” – a word that signifies that the law that was broken was a regulatory offense, and not something necessarily indicative of bad moral character.

Criminal Alien.  The problem with this term is that it is far too general.  Under our immigration law, a “criminal alien” is any alien who commits a crime.  However, that crime could be anything from a traffic offense to a trafficking offense.  It all depends on who is using the term.  Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) invariably refuses to release any “criminal aliens” from custody, whether they are guilty of driving without a license or guilty of sexually abusing a minor.  Our criminal law differentiates between categories of crime, and recognizes that the word “crime” can cover mere regulatory offenses (such as speeding) all the way to the most heinous acts imaginable.

When we call an alien a “criminal alien” we use an overly general adjective to describe them.  And the word “criminal” is a very heavy word.  It makes the person marginalized, regardless the magnitude of his offense. Are we really certain we want to treat the father of four who drove to work without a license the same as the MS-13 gang member who raped a teenage girl?  Is it fair or accurate to call them both “criminal aliens?” 

If our criminal law distinguishes between violations, misdemeanors, and felonies, and our immigration law also distinguishes between different categories of crimes (albeit differently) then our discourse should, as well.  Criminal alien lumps people together who share few common characteristics, and thereby enables all of them to be seen as the same.  It’s like assuming all Asians speak the same language.

Anchor Baby.  If people really knew how hard it would be for an unauthorized immigrant to secure legal status merely by having a child on US soil, they would abandon this silly term.  First of all, although a baby born on US soil is a US citizen, that US citizen cannot sponsor their parent until they turn 21 years of age.  Even then, the parent must obtain an immigrant visa from their home country, and cannot apply for it from within the US.  Once they leave, if they have spent more than 1 year in unlawful status in the US, they are further barred from re-entering the US for 10 additional years.  So it will take any parent at least 21 years, and possibly as much as 31 years, before they can obtain lawful status simply by having a child on US soil.  There’s instant gratification, there’s delayed gratification, and there’s this.

To hear some people tell it, a toddler can fill out an I-130 petition for an alien relative and the parent can sit comfortably in the US and wait for their green card to come in the mail, all the while sucking up welfare, food stamps, and any other government money they can get their hands on.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The law simply doesn’t work this way.

Critics usually respond with a) some aliens can apply for cancellation of removal for non-permanent residents (COR) if they have US citizen children, b) pregnant mothers can get government benefits like WIC.

Neither of these responses justifies the use of the term “anchor baby.” As far as  COR is concerned, see our Blawg post about how easy it is to obtain.  And as for short-term benefits – if a pregnant mother illegally crosses the border to obtain higher quality medical care or temporary government benefits, then it’s incorrect to say she is coming for the purpose of having a US citizen child.  It is clearly an abuse of the system, but to call the child an “anchor baby” belies the purpose of the abuse, and therefore does little to solve the problem.  Instead, it creates a imaginary problem, which of course can have no solution.  Its only purpose is to malign and denigrate, create an underclass, and incite patterns of racial hatred and enmity.

We need to understand that labels are merely linguistic convenience, a shorthand to convey complex thoughts that resist succinct definition.  If we fail to appreciate the lexical limits of a label, we limit our own thinking.  And we become easily lured by those who create labels for their own political ends.

Look at the facts, and remember that there is always an exception to the rule.

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