• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Subscribe
  • RSS

There Are No “Illegal Immigrants”

border-illegal-aliens-flag

Mark Ambinder makes an interesting point:

Here is something you probably don’t know about illegal immigrants in the United States. There aren’t any. Zero. The term, on its face, is willfully misleading.

It is not a crime to emigrate to the United States without a visa. The punishment for overstaying a visa, or for having been discovered in the United States without a visa, is not a criminal penalty. It is a civil remedy; an administrative sanction. That’s because the executive branch has the primary right to decide who gets to stay here and who doesn’t. So the phrase “undocumented immigrant” is not a politically correct, less-than-harsh way of referring to what are commonly called “illegal immigrants.” It’smuch more accurate.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, and will likely result in strong objections from the political right, it is accurate for the most part. To the extent that there are criminal penalties related to someone’s immigration status, those generally tend to come unto play when someone tries to work without legal authorization, uses false identity documents, or engages in something such as identity theft or human trafficking. Generally speaking, though, the mere act of being in the United States without proper authorization does not give rise to a criminal charge. Instead, as Ambinder points out, deportations are generally dealt with as civil proceedings, although in some respects they do resemble criminal trials in that the “accused” has a right to counsel, along with the other rights granted under the Constitution.

It’s a trivial point, I suppose, but potentially significant in that one’s attitude about immigration reform and the rights of people is likely to change if you stop viewing these people as law breakers.

Related Posts:

About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Jeff says:

    There are no illegal immigrants, except those who immigrate illegally. “Illegal” implies a violation of any law, not necessarily a criminal one, but FWIW, most illegals entered the country illegally, a crime under 8 U.S. Code § 1325.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2

  2. Rusty Shackleford says:

    Words matter, the polls regarding “Government healthcare” vs. “public option” being a great example.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  3. PD Shaw says:

    Doug and @Jeff make good points, there are various nuances. But Ambinder is being “willfully misleading.” The claim in his first paragraph is different than the “evidence” in his second paragraph.

    @Doug, all that conservatives need to know is that it is easier to deport violators under non-criminal laws, because criminal laws come with more substantial due process rights.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  4. Rafer Janders says:

    So the phrase “undocumented immigrant” is not a politically correct, less-than-harsh way of referring to what are commonly called “illegal immigrants.” It’smuch more accurate.

    It also much less accurate in that in the vast majority of cases those immigrants actually do have documents — from their home countries. A Honduran, for example, has plenty of Honduran ID and citizenship documents. What he doesn’t have is any American-government-issued documents or authorization allowing him to enter and/or reside in the US.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  5. Rafer Janders says:

    It is not a crime to emigrate to the United States without a visa. The punishment for overstaying a visa, or for having been discovered in the United States without a visa, is not a criminal penalty. It is a civil remedy; an administrative sanction.

    The term “illegal” is used to refer to many activities that are civil or administrative violations and not criminal ones. We say, for example, that someone is parking illegally when he’s in a fire hydrant or handicapped spot. We’re not claiming that this is a crime, but it’s still “illegal” parking.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  6. grumpy realist says:

    @Jeff: There’s a heck of a lot of people who overstay their visas. People who come from places like Ireland, Russia, etc. So what would you call them?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  7. I said my piece on this issue five years ago:

    I think the term “undocumented” frankly is absurd; it sounds like a bureaucratic mix-up (“oh dear, I lost the title to my car, it’s now undocumented”) rather than the truth, which is that in a vast majority of cases—the unfortunate cases of those with jus soli or jus sanguinis without the proper paperwork aside—the “undocumented” have no legal permission or right to be in the United States, and often have forged (i.e. illegal) paperwork claiming otherwise, hence hardly making them “undocumented” but rather more properly maldocumented, the legal equivalent of a teen with fake ID who certainly isn’t an “undocumented adult.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  8. Jeff says:

    @grumpy realist: I would call them “illegal immigrants.” If someone referred to them as “criminal aliens,” I would correct them on that,since overstaying a visa is illegal but not criminal.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  9. mantis says:

    If a citizen breaks the law, do we call that person an “illegal American?” That’s why there are no “illegal immigrants.” To call them that is to claim their very existence is a violation of the law. It’s a way to dehumanize them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  10. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    Let’s keep going. No more rape victims or rape survivors, we’ll call them “involuntary sperm recipients.” I didn’t rob the bank, I “made an undocumented withrawal.”

    For the average person, if you break the law, you committed an illegal act. If you overstay your visa or cross the border without authorization or enter under false circumstances, it’s all the same to the average person.

    And I don’t like “illegal immigrant.” “Immigrant” implies someone who comes here with the intent to stay, and that doesn’t always apply. “Alien” is more generic; it covers all non-citizens, regardless of intended duration of stay. And “illegal alien” is nice and simple — two words, twelve letters. OK, at six syllables, it’s a bit of a mouthful, but then again my chosen nom de plume and “Douglas Mataconis” have just as many syllables, so I guess that’s not too bad.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 14

  11. Kylopod says:

    @Rafer Janders: That’s a good point, and it does cut a little into Ambinder’s thesis that the term “illegal alien” is inaccurate. What we need to keep in mind is that words can have connotations that go beyond their strict definitions. It’s true that the word “illegal” can be applied to violations of civil law, as in your examples; however, it does strongly tend to have a connotation of criminal activity. If you say “Bob did something illegal today,” most people’s immediate assumption would be that Bob committed a crime.

    Not incidentally, Google’s dictionary defines illegal as “contrary to or forbidden by law, especially criminal law.” I wasn’t able to find that last qualification in Dictionary.com or Merriam Webster online, but I think it reflects the way the word is generally used. In any event, and despite the overwhelming popular support for a path to citizenship, I suspect that most Americans are under the mistaken impression that “illegal aliens” are technically guilty of a crime.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  12. James Pearce says:

    For a second, I thought this was going to be about how Obama deported them all…

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Let’s keep going. No more rape victims or rape survivors, we’ll call them “involuntary sperm recipients.”

    Really, dude? You had to go there?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  13. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @James Pearce: Really, dude? You had to go there?

    I hesitated briefly, in light of this study and the rash of female public school teachers engaging in statutory rape of male students, but figured “what the hell.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 11

  14. Tyrell says:

    I do not have a problem with assimilating these people quickly into society here. They seem to be hard working, family oriented, law abiding, and are active in the Christian faith. As long as they don’t go around stirring up trouble, I don’t see a problem. On the other hand there are a lot of people that should be given a free, one way pass out of here: career criminals, gang members, child predators and abusers. and bank robbers. Empty out some of the prisons and get them out of here. Any where but here.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  15. Gavrilo says:

    Any “undocumented immigrant” who is deported and illegally reenters the United States is guilty of a felony under federal law. In fact, a significant percentage of deportations each year are for illegal immigrants who have previously been deported. There are hundreds of thousands of these people in the United States and their presence in the U.S. is crime. The argument that there is no such thing as an illegal immigrant is bull$hit.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 4

  16. bill says:

    @grumpy realist: good ol’ normal white folks…..who talk kinda funny!? i remember working with some canadian (here illegally)guy back in the 80′s- he narked on himself and had to leave the country. i said “dude, you’re in Texas, there’s a million illegals who look and speak nothing like you- wtf?” just a guy with integrity i guess, but that was long ago.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

  17. wr says:

    @James Pearce: Every once in a while, Jenos’ mommy remembers to turn on the porn filter, and little J has to start spewing his sexual fantasies over here. Just be glad he hasn’t started on teenage lesbian and “finger-banging” again — he was wanking over that for a week.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  18. DrDaveT says:

    @mantis:

    To call them that is to claim their very existence is a violation of the law.

    Huh? That’s like saying “unlicensed driver” must mean a driver who has no licenses of any kind — no fishing license, no barber’s license, nothing. “Illegal immigrant” means “one who immigrated illegally”, not “one who immigrated and is illegal”. Unless you also think that all of the parallel parkers in the world are oriented in the same direction…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  19. DrDaveT says:

    @Tyrell:

    I do not have a problem with assimilating these people quickly into society here

    Nor do I. But in the meantime, under current law, they are here illegally, behaving illegally, abetting others to break the law.

    The fix is to change the law.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  20. Jeff says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: @mantis: “Illegal immigrant” doesn’t refer to any immigrant who breaks any law, only to those whose very status as immigrants is illegal. If an otherwise legal alien goes out and robs a bank, he’s not an illegal alien until and unless his visa is revoked (and probably not even then, as he’d be immediately deported at the end of his prison term). But if his immigration is itself illegal, then by definition he is an illegal immigrant, even if that’s the only law he ever broke in his life. He is not “illegal,”per se, it’s his status as an immigrant that is.

    By contrast, American is itself a legal status, so there’s no way to be that illegally. If the law says you’re an American, then you are, and that’s legal. If the law says you aren’t an American, then you’re not. There is no way to be “American” in violation of the law, ergo, no “illegal Americans.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  21. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Jeff: And here I thought it meant that one makes one’s home in a particular hemisphere. Silly me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. Rafer Janders says:

    @mantis:

    If a citizen breaks the law, do we call that person an “illegal American?”

    Um, no. But we do call them a criminal.

    That’s why there are no “illegal immigrants.” To call them that is to claim their very existence is a violation of the law. It’s a way to dehumanize them.

    One of my parents was a legal immigrant — if there are legal immigrants, then there can certainly be illegal immigrants. The term illegal immigrants doesn’t “claim their very existence is a violation of the law” — it’s a claim that their immigration status is in violation of the laws of this country.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. Boyd says:

    I find it amusing that Mr Ambinder, in his attempt to tell us that “black” is “white” and chide us for our poor diction, and to impress us with his superior vocabulary, chooses a word we don’t see much. Unfortunately, he gets it wrong.

    Mr Armbinder, if you’re going to use words that aren’t familiar to you, you should spend a little time looking at their definitions. In this case, one never “emigrates to” someplace, one must “emigrate from” their country, while “immigrating to” their new home.

    Thus endeth the pedantic, OCD rant. Except I’m really CDO, which is much like OCD except the letters are in alphabetical order, AS THEY SHOULD BE!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  24. Boyd says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: Almost, but not quite. I’m sure most folks in Portugal don’t consider themselves to be American. Same for Iceland. :-)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. ernieyeball says:

    @Tyrell: They seem to be hard working, family oriented, law abiding, and are active in the Christian faith.

    I was hard working before I retired. (At least when the boss was looking.) Lived with a gal I never married for 16 years. Divorced once. Drank alcohol before I was old enough. Refuse to worship any god or practice any religion.
    Of course none of that matters.
    This is what counts:

    1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  26. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Jeff:

    By contrast, American is itself a legal status, so there’s no way to be that illegally. If the law says you’re an American, then you are, and that’s legal. If the law says you aren’t an American, then you’re not. There is no way to be “American” in violation of the law, ergo, no “illegal Americans.”

    Don’t tell that to any of the Republicans that still insist Obama isn’t an American. ;-)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. James Joyner says:

    Well, whatever we call them, we can all agree that it’s no fun being one.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  28. Robin Cohen says:

    While Mr. Ambinder may be politically correct, the mindset which allows a foreign national to enter this country and remain here indefinitely without becoming a citizen is not. If one lives here indefinitely, one should feel some sense of commitment to our values and beliefs that come with citizenship. Without that connection, why remain here? Is it right to take what this country offers and not give back what the loyalty and responsibilities of citizenship demand?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  29. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    Is it right to take what this country offers and not give back what the loyalty and responsibilities of citizenship demand?

    Frankly that’s a load of bull. Given the legal framework, “giving back” doesn’t even enter into it. Have a look at reality here.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  30. DrDaveT says:

    @Robin Cohen:

    If one lives here indefinitely, one should feel some sense of commitment to our values and beliefs that come with citizenship. Without that connection, why remain here?

    You mean, besides the fact that this is where your job, your wife and kids, your friends, your place of worship, and your house are?

    The idea that the only reason to live somewhere is as a statement of political fealty is bizarre and disturbing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0