Being Illegal

Here’s a problem with the language of the immigration reform debate: the general acceptance of the phrase “illegal immigrant.” I know this phrase pre-dated the tea partiers and minutemen and was not necessarily conceived as a racist message. But it sure plays into that use.

If I run a stop sign, you might say I ran a stop sign. I drove illegally that day. Guilty as charged. But does that make me an “illegal driver”?  No. The thing I did is not generally assigned to me as a status of my person.

But boy, if you cross a border illegally one time, you bear the mark of freaking Cain! You didn’t do an illegal thing. You ARE illegal.  People allow themselves to view you as essentially a non-person, because it is a mark of your essential being now. YOU are illegal.

That is a huge rhetorical problem, because it allows people to get on a high horse about the technicality of legality. Legality and moral character are magically interchangeable. An illegal person is an immoral person, a non-person. Non-persons can be denied all rights, not just the rights of citizenship, but increasingly, it seems, basic human rights.

An “illegal immigrant” is seen as a person getting away with something, somehow taking something away from the rest of us “legals”. The illegal immigrant is a criminal, and that just gets the goat of law-abiding citizens. A person who needs money can choose to work, or choose to steal, and that is a choice. But a person who wishes to enter a country does not have an equally viable path to legal entry if the entry process is made difficult by quotas or other laws discouraging immigration. If the legal status of persons is the real issue, why keep making new laws which will produce more illegal immigrants? How about making laws which produce fewer illegal immigrants, like making it easier to enter the country legally?

I propose that we drop “illegal immigrant” in favor of  “migrant workers”, since contrary to the scare tactics of the immigration freakouters, most do in fact come here to work, not get white babies hooked on drugs while raping them. That migrant workers may or may not have entered the country illegally tells you about as much about that person’s moral character as the fact that I once bought beer in a wet country and then drank it in a dry county tells you about my moral character. Furthermore, one could easily turn the moral character angle completely around. If you are a farmer, or a farm laborer, and are unable to work due to economic conditions in your country, and you knew of work across the border, and obtaining this work could help you provide for your family, but in order to enter that country, you had to do so illegally, what would be the moral, Christian thing to do? Let your family starve, on the principle of not entering a country illegally? Or take some personal risk to provide for them? Isn’t it clear that the moral thing to do would be to disregard the immigration law in favor of your family’s economic security? Of course it is — therefore what defines people in this predicament is that they are migrant workers, not illegal immigrants.

Migrant workers with no legal rights are the least enfranchised people in our country. Far from being the cause of any problem, they are the victims of economic and labor policies and discrimination perpetrated against them by very well enfranchised, well connected political elites in both countries. Bringing the full measure of the state down upon the very least enfranchised members of our society — besides being cruel — is guaranteed to accomplish nothing and please no one. It’s like trying to cure leukemia by arresting cancer victims.

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