Editor's Note: Is the term "illegal immigrant" a slur? Last year New America Media asked the media serving U.S. immigrant communities what term they use to describe undocumented immigrants: How Do Ethnic Media Say 'Illegal Immigrant'? Now the question is sparking a debate in mainstream media.
Last week Charles Garcia wrote a CNN opinion piece, “Why 'Illegal Immigrant' Is a Slur.” Columnist Ruben Navarrette responded with a CNN opinion piece titled, "'Illegal Immigrant' Is the Uncomfortable Truth."
In the following open letter to Ruben Navarrette, law school student and Dream Activist leader Prerna Lal, whose own immigration status is in limbo, argues that the term "illegal immigrant" doesn't accurately describe the fluidity of immigration status. The government allows people to move back and forth from one status to another, and live in a kind of legal limbo that is not reflected in the binary notion of "legal vs. illegal."
I enjoy your writing, probably more than most people. You hold President Obama accountable for his abhorrent immigration policies. You stick it to the Republicans for hating on immigrants because their hate has to do with the color of our skin. And you generally make a lot of sense.
But you are wrong when you say that “illegal immigrant” is the correct lexicon to use for people without proper immigration status because the shoe fits. The uncomfortable truth is not that “illegal immigrant” fits but that painting a wide range of complex immigration statuses with the broad brush of “illegal” is all too convenient, lazy and just plain wrong.
Honestly, I don’t know anyone who enjoys breaking the law. Some people immigrate here legally because they have the privilege of doing so while many others have to use improper channels to come here so that they can provide safety and refuge for their loved ones, or pursue their dreams in the land of opportunity. Many people eventually adjust their status and become legal residents, disproving the notion that being without proper immigration status is a permanent immutable condition. On the other end of the spectrum, many people are here with legal status simply because they or their parents or grandparents were privileged enough to be born here. Still, immigration status is far more amorphous and complicated than simply labeling someone a “legal” or “illegal” immigrant.
Take, for example, my own immigration case. My parents gained legal residency through my U.S. citizen grandmother but I was aged-out of the process and put in removal proceedings. I have a pending green card application and a pending cancellation of removal case in immigration court. While both applications are pending, I get to have work authorization, through which I have a driver’s license, state identification and a host of other privileges. I’m also eligible for deferred action. It is, hence, legally incorrect to call me an illegal immigrant (or even an undocumented immigrant), though many have resorted to doing so while telling me to get out of their country. I’m in legal limbo but I’m certainly not in the country illegally at this point.
And indeed, it is hard to tell who is in the country with or without a proper immigration status unless you are a qualified immigration attorney or judge. I work at an immigration law firm. Last week, we had a family come in for consultation because they thought they qualified for deferred action. It turns out that they should have received their green cards in the mail a long time ago. As another example, someone who thought he was DREAM Act-eligible came in for a consult to determine his eligibility for the deferred action program. His dad had naturalized when he was a minor and we had the pleasure of telling him that he was, in fact, a U.S. citizen. All too often, the government shifts people from one immigration status to another, blurring the line between who is in the country legally and who is here legally.
All this begs the question: If people are really bothered about the rule of law, should they not leave the labeling of people to the jurisprudence of immigration courts? After all, only an immigration judge can order the deportation of someone. The fact that people resort to marginalizing and castigating some immigrants as “illegal” only goes to show that they aren’t interested in rule and order—they are interested in scapegoating difference.
There is a rich history of this scapegoating, harkening back to the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Chinese were deemed ineligible for citizenship. The Indians were told they were not white, and hence, not admissible. Americans of Mexican descent were deported during the Great Depression. Gays and lesbians were excluded from admission until 1990. There is little doubt that the latest fervor about illegal immigration has little to do with following the law and more to do with excluding Latinos such as Mr. Navarette, or Asian-Pacific Islanders like myself.
But America is about due process. Our system of justice is based on the premise that people are innocent until they are proven guilty. And that is precisely how immigration courts operate. The Supreme Court affirmed in Arizona v. U.S. that being present in the country illegally was not a crime. In fact, the word “illegal” and even “illegal immigrant” does not encompass with specificity the many ways permission to enter and remain in the United States may or may not be granted within the law. Neither “illegal” nor “illegal immigrant” are defined in the text of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
As such, I would like to take this opportunity to offer some legally permissible categories that are defined in the Immigration and Nationality Act, including:
Overstay: Someone who overstays her admission to the country. An overstay may or may not accrue unlawful presence, and may simply be out of status.
Entry Without Inspection (EWI): Someone who enters the country without inspection or proper admission. An EWI may still be eligible for admission without leaving the country.
Immigrant: A green-card holder whether through admission or adjustment of status.
Non-immigrant: Anyone who is in the U.S. temporarily with legal status but is not a green-card holder or U.S. citizen.
Asylee: Anyone granted asylum in the United States due to past persecution or well-founded fear of persecution in their home country.
And the list continues. By questioning the use of the i-word, I am not playing with words. I’m simply pointing out that by using these words, we are “playing with” people. Right-wing extremists and those in power have shaped our discourse, and in order to move past misguided perceptions, we need to reshape the dialogue on immigration and set some facts right. Any attempt to define millions of individuals using one term is going to be problematic. It would be more specific, and proper, to use the terms “overstay,” “EWI,” “out of status,” and even “DREAMer” – a reference to the young people who would benefit if we enacted a federal DREAM Act -- given the president’s recent directive to halt the deportation of some young people who were brought here not on their own volition. When we stop using the broad brush of illegal, and even undocumented, to define immigrants and non-immigrants, we open the door to actually seeing them as individuals with complex stories.
I know that may be dangerous for a status quo that is premised on dividing us based on arbitrary differences. It may even be uncomfortable because reporters and journalists would actually need to not only learn about immigration law but also learn about the lives of those whom they disparage willingly. But if you are committed to responsible and accurate journalism, and upholding the rule and integrity of law, it is not only legally correct, but the right thing to do.
Immigrants and non-immigrants who come to the United States are risk takers. They leave behind what they know to travel hundreds and, sometimes, thousands of miles to come to another country. Sometimes they do it to escape warrantless persecution in their home countries. Other times they do it because they are looking for a better future for their children. And in many cases, people come here with the best intentions to retain legal status, but through no mistake of their own, fall out of status. We need risk takers in our country. We want people who have made it through the worst conditions and who come here with drive and ambition, whether they do it through proper channels or improper channels. It’s what makes America a great country.
Prerna Lal is a third year law student at The George Washington University Law School. She is a board director at Immigration Equality and works as a law clerk for a Washington, D.C. immigration firm Benach Ragland LLP.