What it takes to be an “illegal”

I often hear them referred to as “illegals.” I hear news stations reporting on “illegal immigration” as if it were Mad Cow Disease. And I wonder about this term “illegal.”

  • If I hire my neighbor’s 13 year old son to mow my lawn and pay him in cash, am I an illegal employer? Is he an illegal worker? What if I pay my niece to babysit?
  • If I drive with expired plates, expired license, no insurance, am I an illegal driver? What if I do have valid license and registration but do 80mph the entire trip and don’t get caught? I have broken the law, but does that make me an illegal? What if a policeman pulls me over and asks me if I know how fast I was going and I lie?
  • I travel to the U.S. with a valid visa but stay past its expiration date. I stay with rich friends and enjoy my time for an extra month. Am I an illegal?
  • I live in Canada but cross the border daily to work construction and get paid in cash. Am I an illegal?
  • I travel from México to visit my brother in Arizona. I decide to stay and live (not work) with my family indefinitely. Am I an illegal?
  • I study K-12 in California, graduate top of my class, speak un-accented English, but lack a U.S. birth certificate because I was brought to California at age 2. Am I an illegal?
  • I drive to México for a weekend trip and forget to declare the avocados I bought when I return. Am I an illegal, or just the avocados?
  • I stop to enjoy the shade outside a Home Depot. I am dark skinned, wear a cowboy hat and boots. Am I an illegal?

In my mind, the only common thread that deems someone “illegal” is that they look Mexican (also read Latino, Hispanic, Nonwhite, Other). These people are foreigners and Americans (suffering from historical amnesia) don’t like immigrants. These people don’t belong here. Close the border and deport the illegals! It’s plain and simple racism. If you get caught with your pants down in public, it’s called “indecent exposure.” If you walk across the middle of a street it’s called “jaywalking.” If you let your auto registration lapse, you get a fix-it ticket. But if you have an expired visa you’re an “illegal.” Is there something morally abhorent about visa violations?

If you don’t think you’re racist towards Mexicans, here’s a litmus test for your next dinner party conversation on “illegals.” Try getting your point across without using demonizing terms like “illegal” to describe them. Be specific. Who exactly are you talking about? What exactly is their crime?

Seems like a shame to use a fear-inducing label like this only on one group of people. Perhaps we should consider broadening its use.



  Gravatar kenrick wrote @ November 16th, 2005 at 11:22 am

If you get caught with your pants down in public, its called indecent exposure.

Ah that totally explains it. I was just doing it for the cash. Does that make me illegal?

  Gravatar Jake Jacobsen wrote @ November 19th, 2005 at 10:24 pm

Hey Nate,

Okay, where to begin. First, the difference between your teenage neighbor/niece and an illegal alien is the former are citizens, the latter aren’t. That may mean nothing to you, means a lot to me.

All illegal activity is illegal, while true that some laws have been overturned as racist (plessy, brown) it’s not all that common. I don’t think that the current (unenforced) immigration laws are peculiarly racist. It has to do, again, with the rights of citizenship, not race. OTM’s (other than Mexicans) crossing our Southern border is approaching 20%.

The racism toward Mexicans argument. I would be curious to know where you live. I reside in the great city of Chicago, though illegal Mexicans are an enormous problem, they are hardly the only one. In an average day I will encounter illegal aliens from–Poland; Bosnia; Russia; Syria; Iraq; Iran; Saudi; Palestine; Sierra Leone; Cuba; I think you get the picture. Illegal alien, though largely, is hardly an exclusively Mexican or Hispanic issue.

Finally, I would be curious to know what you do for a living. I’m a chef and have seen close up the problems that come with illegal aliens. I can recite the ones you expect, exotic disease; take jobs; drive wages down, and I can assure you, at least in my field, their all true.
However there is another aspect to this problem I don’t think you’ve considered. How bad it can be for the illegal alien who often labors for pennies an hour, has no chance at advancement or education. Is more likely to be preyed on, both in their attempt to cross the border, border deaths are WAY up this year, did you know that?
But their also more likely to be preyed on by criminals here because of their historic unwillingness to go to the police. I can only say for myself that the solution to that problem is not the ‘sanctuary city’. Chicago is one and it hasn’t worked all that well. Illegals still don’t report and the police are hampered from doing their jobs, lose lose.

Finally, I think every person involved in the 9-11 plot was a visa overstay, if your cool with that, I really don’t know what to say. it has been said that if visa procedure had been followed there was at least a chance 9-11 wouldn’t have happened.

Thanks for visiting my site. You make a good argument, but I think it’s a little light on facts and deeper consideration.


  Gravatar Nathan Gibbs wrote @ November 20th, 2005 at 10:37 am

Perhaps xenophobia or political nativism are more appropriate terms for this discussion. You say that citizenship is important to you; it’s about protecting citizens’ rights. This suggests that non-citizens deserve less rights simply because they were born (no one chooses where they are born) within a different political boundary. If a couple of illegals have a baby in California, that baby is a legal citizen according to the U.S. Constitution. Is that baby more valuable (worthy of citizens’ rights) than the parents? Deport the parents and put the baby into an orphanage?

You are right that not all illegals are “Hispanic.” However, an estimated 81% come from Mexico and Latin America. I’d say that makes for a pretty convenient racial profile. If you single out any group you will find criminals (there is a distinction here that goes unanswered as to why these people are considered criminal whereas a speeding ticket is no big deal) but it is ignorant to demonize the entire group. Those who cross illegally with guns, drugs, and children for prostitution are criminals, yes. Protect the border to keep them out, yes. Place that sense of panic and fear of terrorism on the majority who merely want to help their families, no.

Employers, as well as our government, take advantage of these immigrants. A law was passed 5 years ago guaranteeing visas for immigrants who cooperate with law enforcement. However not a single visa has been granted, but even criminals (U.S. citizens) are granted special deals for helping law enforcement.

There are great misperceptions that immigrants are a drain on our economy, but many studies have confirmed that the opposite is true. Even undocumented workers – commonly referred to as ‘illegal’ contribute more than their fair share to our great country” (Alan Greenspan Federal Reserve Board Chairman, Congressional testimony, July 2001).

The economic boost far outweighs the drain. It is estimated that the majority of undocumented workers are paying income tax and social security they will never withdraw. They pay sales taxes, the federal fees on phone bills and highway tolls like the rest of us.

The reference to the September 11th hijackers’ visa violation is the least insignificant part of their crime but seems to fuel anti-immigrant rhetoric. They were murderers plain and simple, valid visas or not. It is unjust to assume that all visa violators are terrorists. What can we conclude from Timothy Veigh, Ted Kaczynski, or Eric Rudolph? Everyone who reads J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye should have their phones tapped? All white men with troubled childhoods are terrorists?

In the end, deporting illegals does nothing to address the underlying economic causes of this new migration.

  Gravatar Jake Jacobsen wrote @ November 20th, 2005 at 1:08 pm

Okay, for starters, thanks for the ad hominem attack. nicely done, are you proud of yourself?

Your first argument is actually under debate right now. it is felt that the idea of an anchor baby is a MIS-reading of the fourteenth amendment.

I don’t think illegals have less right, I think they have none. Rights as a citizen devolve from citizenship. I’m sure you’ll argue about’human rights’ that’s a different thing entirely. I am not advocating harm or mistreatment of illegals, please don’t suggest that. I merely argue that a non-citizen does not share the same protections as a citizen.

As to the political boundary. This is probably the crux of our divide here. I do not live in an undifferentiated land mass. I live in America. That means something to me. Clearly it means something very different to you. I don’t fault you for that, but it is a big difference. I’m not sure how much point there is to debating this when you don’t see yourself as a citizen of a specific country.

I agree with you that the government, employers and citizens have all used illegal aliens. I see that every day. I however think it’s wrong on every level. To me this is a moral issue, not merely a legal one. Yes, I know you’ll argue the right of the illegal to come here. I disagree.

Alan Greenspans comments are not uncontested. Yes, some people think that. Again, I haven’t seen it myself and could quote any number of studies that suggest the exact opposite. Who to believe?

Again, your argument about the speeding ticket seems fallacious to me. No, you are not ‘illegal’ if you speed. Your also not illegal if you rob a bank. I don’t understand this line of argument. No crime you could suggest large or small would render you an illegal.

If you support illegal immigration fine. I don’t. We’ll have to disagree.

As to the Visa violators argument. True, they were murderers who were here on a visa. I don’t see that as being divisible. The simple fact is that if they were removed for the visa overstay 9-11 might not have happened. Of course it’s unjust to assume all visa violators are murderers, I never suggested that. However, all overstays are criminals, break the law once why not twice?

The difference between the gentlemen you mentioned and the visa overstays is clear to me. One we could catch, the other we couldn’t.

Why don’t you do a piece in support of illegal immigration and I’ll do one against and we’ll feature them on our respective blogs.

  Gravatar Nathan Gibbs wrote @ November 20th, 2005 at 11:48 pm

Earlier, you asked where I live. I live on the edge of the U.S. and México. I live between two worlds. I speak English and Spanish. I have a Port Pass as a frequent border crosser registered with the Dept. of Homeland Security. I am a U.S. citizen married to a Mexican citizen. I also have family and friends who have been denied visas repeatedly without substantial reasons. Immigration officers who conduct visa interviews are individual judges and juries. They do not allow people to have legal representation. I know a Mexican accountant who has been denied 4 times for 4 different reasons, no criminal background, no compelling reason to deny.

I see the physical border as a manifestation of a larger cultural divide, with no solutions in sight. I think we can expect this to be a continuing debate. And rather than running laps around each other, I return now to my thoughts on the initial post . . .

The terminology in this discussion intrigues me. The fundamental description of this migration as “illegal” is ironic (the U.S. was founded by “illegals” who took the land from the indigenous population “without papers”). Today, entering the U.S. “without inspection” is the technical description in immigration law for crossing illegally. “Expired visa” or “without visa” describes visitor status. Semantics are the key here. The intoxicated drive “under the influence” yet the individual who enters “without inspection” isn’t described as a person who crossed without inspection but rather as “illegal.” The 8 year old brought by her parents “without a visa” is an “illegal” even though she has not voluntarily violated any law. The term seems a convenient way to criminalize rather than empathize (considering our country’s origins). The different circumstances that brand them “illegal” are complicated and nuanced, and I struggle to accept the issue as clean cut black and white, right and wrong.

  Gravatar cindylu wrote @ May 5th, 2006 at 8:19 am

You explain it well. I always just thought it sounded ugly and “illegals” is dehumanizing because you don’t even think of immigrants as people. I think Darrin Bell author of the Candorville comice explained it well in this comic.

  Gravatar Eric Harvey wrote @ June 18th, 2006 at 6:38 am

Hey Nate! This thread caught my eye and I couldn’t help but put my two cents in. I suppose my opinion on the word “illegal” has fluctuated over time, but I’ve made peace with it (to some degree). This seems to be one of those words that cause people to turn on their political correctness. Does the word “illegal” have any bearing on the quality of the person, or their value as a human being? Of course not. There’s nothing illegal about wanting to provide for one’s family. Furthermore, those who come over here aren’t looking to be a burden on our society, or to be criminals. That much is clear, and I think rational people on both sides of the argument would, and do, agree with that. However, this does not make them “legal” in the eyes of our laws. This of course doesn’t refer to their qualities as human beings, and it has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with nationality and “legal citizenship”.

In your original post, you have a list of things that question if one is illegal. My answer to all of those is YES! Not because the person breaking the laws does it for insidious reasons, but rather because there are valid laws against each of the scenarios you described. Specifically, the law doesn’t designate someone as an illegal if they break the laws, it merely designates illegal activities as being “illegal”. Perhaps we should differentiate between engaging in illegal activities, and being “illegal” Branding someone as an “illegal” is a misnomer when referring to individual actions. It is perfectly legitimate when referring to a person’s status under the law (with regards to citizenship). Perhaps I’m looking at the word (as most people do) as a technical distinction of citizenship.

And trust me, I’m not missing the larger point your making of recognizing our common humanity. That much is clear to me, indeed to people who use the phrase “illegal alien” as well. While it may sound like a harsh term, often technical distinctions have a harsh or cold tone. You also mentioned that referring to people as “illegal” is a demonizing and fear-inducing term. I’d have to say…no more than saying speeding is illegal, or lying to a policeman is illegal, or staying on an expired visa is illegal (have I set a record yet of the use of “illegal” LOL!) These aren’t belittling or racist terms, they are technical distinctions between what is lawful and what is not. For the record, people who are in a country unlawfully, are in fact, breaking laws!

Now I have a litmus test for those who criticize the US for having strict laws of citizenry. Name a country that allows undocumented immigrants to do the things they would demand of us. What’s Mexico’s policy on becoming a citizen and partaking in tax-payer funds? How about India, France, England, etc…? I surmise they don’t extend those rights to undocumented immigrants in their own countries, though they demand it of us. Furthermore, they probably use terms like “illegal” when referring to visitors without papers in their own countries. While I completely agree with you that the issue of Mexico’s economy and the plight of its people is a nuanced issue, I think it’s too simple to call people racist if they don’t agree with your position. Certainly both sides are “nuanced” and neither side should be quick to use demeaning terms. While there’s no good side to the term “racist” there can be benign uses of the term “illegal”, though it does sound harsh. Hopefully I haven’t repeated what other have said, and I do appreciate your comments…they were well thought out and insightful. I certainly didn’t mean to rant and rave!

I had checked in to write something nice about your trip to Spain but alas…my fingers are now too tired! Seems like everyone is going to Europe. I just talked to Amber Cravy and she just got back from Spain and is on her way to Greece and France. I’m jealous. Hmmm…Spain and Germany, the lands of both our forefathers? I hope it ‘s a blessed trip bro. Be Well.

  Gravatar George Bell wrote @ November 19th, 2006 at 8:21 am

I have another name for illegal” Try “TRESPASSER”. They could be British, Italian, Polish, Chinese, Russian, oh, and yes Latino. I don’t care if they are white, black, green or brown. Any person that enters your property without an invite or stays longer they the “HOST” wants them to, is a “TRESPASSER”
Funny how the Liberals leave out the part where fake documents SSN and ID Theft are not happening.
I say send a bill to Mexico, Britain,Poland, China, etc for each one of their CITIZENS that are in our country uninvited.
I say put a head tax of $5000? year on the law breaking companies that employee slave labor.

And to the Liberals like Teddy Kennedy, that compares these Trespassers to your ancestors that came here invited. I say, YOU PAY FOR THEIR PUBLIC Services with YOUR MONEY

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