Why “Don’t Say ‘Illegal Immigrant'” Is a Problem

thLast month [June, 2014], as Americans focused attention on Central American child refugees, Benjamin L. Corey’s June, 2013 article, “Why We Need To Stop Using The Term ‘Illegal Immigrant’”, appeared on my Facebook feed. In it, Corey said using the term “illegal immigrant” was to bear false witness against our neighbor.

I am a Baptist minister and film maker who advocates for illegal immigrants, guest workers in the US legally with a visa, and domestic labor. With enormous respect for those concerned about the term, I want to suggest there are bigger issues which are obscured, keeping us from bearing witness on our neighbor’s behalf, when we hesitate to use it.

First, crossing US borders without permission is a crime — a legal wrong doing. There are two classes of crimes–misdemeanors and felonies. Crossing “without inspection”, to use the legal term, is a misdemeanor the first time. But it is a felony when one returns, voluntarily or involuntarily, to his home country and re-enters illegally. Whether a misdemeanor or felony, because of Federal agreements with the for-profit prison industry, the crime of crossing illegally is costing 400,000 people a year their property and their families. The punishment is far out of proportion to the crime. Christians must bear witness to this.

Second, under current law, crossing our southern border illegally, whether as a misdemeanor or a felony, is a crime sometimes leading to loss of life without due process–without arrest, charge, representation, judge, or jury. Since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] in 1992, in an effort to control the movements of laborers it knew it was displacing, the Federal government began knowingly sending illegal immigrants to their deaths via border militarization.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Southwestern Border Strategy, devised after the passing of NAFTA, included closing off the relatively safe, urban crossing areas, such as that at Nogales, Arizona, to force migrants into the vast Sonora Desert. A limited number of migrants would die, according to the Strategy, and word would to get back to Mexican communities where those deaths would become “a deterrent” to others contemplating coming. To date, at least 5,000 migrants have been sent to their deaths in the Pacific Ocean and the Rio Grande, as well as the Sonora Desert. Using death as a deterrent to crime rather than as a punishment for crime is a significant moral problem and a significant international law problem. Christians need to bear witness to this.

In addition, following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a particular class of human beings–in this case unauthorized laborers–became branded as a threat to national security. They themselves, not simply their actions in crossing our border without inspection, have been identified as a threat to national security. Despite the famous saying that “no human being is illegal,” identifying any class of persons, whether Jews in Germany or homosexuals in Uganda or illegal immigrants in the US, as a threat to national security so severe that it warrants taking their life from them is the essence of making human beings illegal. Christians need to bear witness to this.

Third, the word “undocumented” falsely implies there are documents to be had. It indicates that for some reason migrants chose not to come “the right way”. In fact, there is no way for people without title to land or large amounts of money to cross our borders legally if they are from Latin America, Africa, or most parts of Asia. The word “undocumented” functions to obscure the fact that the US has two racially, socially, and ethnically encoded legal entry systems. The system for these areas blocks, before the process begins, all indigenous people and all poor people from entering legally. Christians need to bear witness to this.

Fourth, sensitivity over the term did not originate with migrants. It originated with immigration advocacy insiders. Illegal immigrants often refer to themselves as “illegals”. So do their loved ones. In the days following the passage of HB 56, Alabama’s notorious anti-immigrant law, I listened to a woman in Alabama who had driven 3 hours to address a gathering at the Capitol building in Montgomery. She said, “My name is Rebecca. I’m married to an illegal. I worry every day that he won’t come home.” The translator corrected her. “My name is Rebecca,” he said, “and I’m married to an undocumented man.” It is a problem betraying a lack of respect for illegal immigrants when advocates talk down to, and become suspicious of, the very people they say they are advocating for.

By the same token, I have been in situations where I was afraid for my safety because volatile militiamen were present. I have heard them spewing venom against the “undocumented immigrants” they wanted to drive out of Alabama. As a shibboleth separating good guys from bad guys, “undocumented” simply doesn’t work.

Fifth, as renewed calls for “comprehensive immigration reform” gin up in light of the child refugee crisis, advocate generated suspicion of the term has helped grant moral high ground, and undeserved reliability, to those same advocacy groups which are relentlessly promoting a particular piece of legislation–S. 744. The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act is a sinister bill moving the entire system to the far political right. Instead of focusing on the defeat of a term, Christians must begin, and quickly, to rally defeat of this bill which would send proportionately thousands more to their deaths by completing the militarization of our southern border, ear mark Hispanics in particular for servitude by drastically expanding the guest worker program, and funnel everyone in the US illegally into the deportation machine. Christians need to bear witness to this.

Surely, in our desire to do right by those in the US illegally, we can do better than focusing on these two words while obscuring real life and death issues. Christian witness insists on it. Justice depends on it.

This article originally appeared in Patheos on August 25, 2014.

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