It’s More Complicated Than “Legal vs. Illegal”: An Open Letter to Ruben Navarrette

It’s More Complicated Than “Legal vs. Illegal”: An Open Letter to Ruben Navarrette

Story tools

Comments

A A AResize

Print

Share and Email

 

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.


 

Comments

 
Jmsssj

Posted Jul 10 2012

Thanks for this awesome reflexion. We do need to drop the "I" word. United in hope and resistance. #unitedwedream #unitedwelearn.

Anonymous

Posted Jul 10 2012

@Prerna Lal this country is full of risk takers. I agree that we need more risk takers but I strongly disagree with those risk takers who use “improper channels” to accomplish their goals. The problem with using “improper channels” is that it sets a poor example of needed and excepted behavior; also those “improper channels” are likely to be unlawful. When “improper channels” are excused or overlooked, this country we love so much stops being a land of opportunity, except for those cheating people who don’t care how their actions affect the rest of us. Also the use of “improper channels” removes that level legal playing field that we all depend on. Prerna Lal I have a question for you; what do you call a US Marine who has been selected for and is about to be promoted to the rank of Sergeant? Answer: you call that US Marine a Corporal which is the rank just under Sergeant. My point is that what is pending is not legal status therefore I see no legal limbo.

Anonymous

Posted Jul 10 2012

Prerna - good article but it is tainted by your blatant racism as regards your definition of Republicans.

Anonymous

Posted Jul 10 2012

Open comment to the author: Republicans do not "hate on immigrants" rather they believe laws duly created by our legislative branch, signed by the executive branch, and reviewed by the judicial branch should be enforced until such laws are repealed or found to violate the constitution. No one has the right to openly break our laws- minor or major.

The Republican Party is a big tent party with open arms to legal immigrants and a turned back on those who violate the law. Let's be clear. The Democrat Party cares nothing about the poor or those unlawfully here. Rather they pander to the poor with addictive freebies and illegal immigrants for present and future votes. Obviously it is working as it shows by the bias in your letter to Mr.Navarratte.

CafeConLecheGOP

Posted Jul 10 2012

To your list of examples of why "legal" is not black and white I will add fiances/spouses, who come here legally on non-immigrant K-1 visas, marry the U.S. Citizen within 90 days as required, then wait on average for one year for USCIS to adjust their status to permanent resident (green card holder). K-1 visas are good for the 90 days and are NOT extendable.

Another good example is journalist Mario Guevara, who waited seven years for a judge to make a decision on his asylum application and was just turned down. He wasn't "illegal" until a judge decided his case, but he wasn't "legal" either as he had not been given a legal status. No other words...in limbo for seven years!

Anonymous

Posted Jul 10 2012

The US is a nation of laws.

For immigrants who follow the laws, they're welcomed with open arms and provided with unprecedented opportunity. Republicans welcome them with open arms, and always have.

For illegal immigrants, they're not welcome by most Americans. They break laws by remaining here. They burden our systems in ways that harm legal immigrants and Citizens alike. However, Democrats need them for their votes - this is no secret. This is the reason Democrats are so ardently opposed to voter ID laws.

It's unfortunate you consider 'illegal immigrant' to be a slur. I can understand how you may feel that way, especially if either you are here illegally, or if a friend or loved one is. No one wants to see their loved ones sent back to a third world country.

Anonymous

Posted Jul 10 2012

Re: Anonymous
Posted 2 hours ago
Prerna - good article but it is tainted by your blatant racism as regards your definition of Republicans.
I didn't realize that Republican was a race? LOL

Anonymous

Posted Jul 10 2012

Enlightening, to say the least. I can't remember the last time I read an article on a hot issue presented so clearly, tactfully and without obvious bias or purposeful generalization. Thank you.

Anonymous

Posted Jul 10 2012

Spectacular article. Blows all the negative comments below out of the water. Thank God for improper channels and those who lead by just example. Injustice doesn't right itself. Rosa Parks "illegally" sat at the front of the bus.

Anonymous

Posted Jul 10 2012

Ms. Rosa Parks sat in the first row of seats available to BLACK riders. She did not break the law when sitting down. If you remember American history correctly, Ms., Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person because her feet hurt. She was not trying to make a political of legal statement against the race based laws. Your misuse of her action is offensive and does a disservice to all Americans.

Anonymous

Posted Jul 10 2012

"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. " This... this. Being very involved with this issue has opened my eyes to the painful and surprising inattention to important details that some journalists have.
Thank you so much for such a great piece

Anonymous

Posted Jul 10 2012

Prerna Lal wrote a very well-crafted opinion, but it is just her wishful thinking. Fact is, Ruben Navarrette is correct. While the blanket use of "illegal" should and does make us uncomfortable, and for all the reasons Prerna listed, it is still a term the media rightfully uses. A conscientious writer will include clarification, but if indeed we have over 9 million people without proper legal status, we gotta call 'em something. We can't be yanked and twisted by the PC whim of the day. Are "Black" people Black, mixed-race or African-American? If we see malice in the use then call the user on it, but otherwise let's just have sincere conversations and solve problems; quit dividing us before the conversation even begins.

Anonymous

Posted Jul 10 2012

“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.” That assumption is racist in and of itself. Being biracial (Native American and Black) your assumption about the motives of other people who minds you cannot read is frightening. Labeling people with as racist because you question their motives is hardly unbiased and definitely not impartial or fair. While we are all permitted our own opinions on this issue, defining what is reasonable concerning illegal aliens and immigration law is the place of the federal legislative branch.

Anonymous

Posted Jul 10 2012

Ironic how those anonymous replies to your article attempt to highlight your bias by using their own. They must be republican.

Anonymous

Posted Jul 10 2012

It has been a real pleasure to read your comments on Navarrete's opinion. The social conceptualization of the "migrantion" phenomenon, is still a broad subject to be analyzed by specialists and those inside the governmental institutions in charge of making public policy that would garantee principles of human rights ad access to public services for any individual. It is always refreshing to learn from those who still believe that we can't just typecast people by the mere superficial features without subjected a piece of our identity to the opinions of others. Best regards from Mexico City.

markday

Posted Jul 10 2012

I believe the best term to use is "undocumented immigrant." It originated (with much the
same rationale as the author of this article) with Bert Corona, the legendary organizer who did more than any another Latino to bring about and implement the amnesty given to undocumented immigrants in 1986 under the Reagan administration. The term "illegal" is per se racist. How can a person who has never committed a serious crime be illegal? If i get drunk, get behind the wheel of a car and wipe out a family--why shouldn't I be considered an "illegal" rather than the poor guy in Mexico who is a victim of unfair economic conditions, including blatantly unjust trade policies such as NAFTA? He migrates of necessity in order to survive and feed his family.
Recently have interviewed immigrants detained by police and ICE. Oftentimes, ICE officials act as judge, jury and executioners, harassing and mistreating immigrants as though they are less than human. Their activites are not supervised, and nobody is there to defend the immigrants. Sounds like Nazi Germany? You got it!

Anonymous

Posted Jul 11 2012

First during WWII and the years after Adolf Hitler came to power, no Jewish people were trying to get in to Nazi Germany knowing the treatment and opportunities waiting for them. Next you can debate the use of the term illegal and the severity of any laws being violated until the cows come home; the bottom line is this group of people is violating the federal immigration laws of this country. The intentional violation of any laws to benifit yourself is wrong, regardless of the circumstances. Using NAFTA as justification to break the laws of another country is sad. If you don’t like the law, use the mechanisms provided by your country to alter how your country applies that law; after all your country agreed to abide by it. Lastly the term “illegal” is NOT a racist term! Illegal aliens come in all the colors of man, that is a fact! If the word is racist please tell me what specific race of people it is derogatory towards? Lastly I am bias in my position on this issue as I support the laws of this country. Those laws that I disagree with, I will use the legal method to change, alter or abolish.

Anonymous

Posted Jul 11 2012

Exemplary writing that put other hard core jpurnalists to shame. Very insightful article. Now let's see u respond to that mr. R. N.

markday

Posted Jul 11 2012

why is everyone here anonymous? are you afraid the Gestapo will come for you
in the night? as for Mr. / Ms. Anonyjmous who demands we respect all the laws
of oouir country--that's what they said about slavery and Jim Crow. Those
lalws needed to be challenged and overturned--and MLK rose to
the occasion.

Besides, other countries have laws of sovereignty and the U.S. and its multinationals
rarely respect them. Take for example our drone attacks that have killed
hundreds of innocdent people, and our giving unquestioned financial aid to
coiuntries like Colombia who assassinate trade union leaders. And yes,
the word "illegal" is the moral equivalent of the "N" word. It makes people
lesser than human, and in 99% of the time in current debate / conversation,
it refers to Latin americans, specifically Mexicans. And no, not all
Repubicans are racists. But when you examine who most of the
racists are, most of them turn out to be Republicans. And most of
the current practices in arresting and deporting undocumented
immigrants have been influenced by Nataivist thinking. In other
words, they may have fired Lou Dobbs, but he is alive and well
and his spirit is alive in the Dept. of Homeland Seurity. Even
that title has a whiff of fascisim about it. Der Vaterland?

Anonymous

Posted Jul 11 2012

You *are* playing with words. Without the word "illegal," we're forced to equivocate between lawful and unlawful behavior. You do it yourself in your last paragraph. "Immigrants are good; some lack documents; the only fair thing to do is give them documents." And forcing that equivocation is the goal of the "ban the i-word" movement.

Compare this: "Immigrants are good, but some come illegally. They should, in most cases, be sent back and forced to enter in a legal manner. It's only fair."

Now consider this: Suppose ICE agents break into your house in the middle of the night and throw you out of the country. They do it without permission; it's an "undocumented" arrest. Do you think that would be illegal? Do you think you'd need a judge to say so before you could tell? Do you think "illegal" would be defined in the relevant statute? Does it matter? Do you think "undocumented" is the best word, or is "unauthorized" better?

If you demanded their prosecution, would you be insulted if people wrote that your use of the word "illegal" proved you weren't really interested in the rule of law?

I think "illegal" is the correct term. I haven't found anything to replace it that isn't worse. As far as definitions go, I suppose that's up to the writer or speaker, but people illegally present will include, at a minimum, those who entered without inspection and those who have overstayed. I think that's precise enough for political discussion among lay people.

"Undocumented" is not the same thing. Immigration status doesn't depend on documentation. There are people in the US who have legal status but no documents to prove it. Derivative citizens are often this way, or people with no filed birth certificate. Immigration status fundamentally depends on permission, not documents.

The US has the right, and Congress has the authority, to decide who comes here. "Being a complex person" or having a good story is not a substitute for meeting the legal requirements. The word "illegal" reminds you of that. Some people don't want to be reminded.

Still, I'd like to say your article is one of the most insightful pieces I've read on the topic. Sorry to disagree. Good luck with your cancellation petition.

Anonymous

Posted Jul 11 2012

YAY!!

Anonymous

Posted Jul 12 2012

The U.S. is a nation of laws for SOME and not for OTHERS. Although some of the commentary in response to this open letter, is well worded, it is inaccurate in it's truth. The so-called laws were written by the European immigrants, for the purpose of protecting their position in this stolen land. Excluding even the indigenous people. The term "illegal immigrant" is more often used when referring to a person of color, particularly one of Latino heritage(currently). I know a few Europeans who are not yet citizens of the U.S. and have been here for many years. However, in all of our conversations about their status, not once have any of them ever recalled being labeled "illegal". Funny how that works.

Anonymous

Posted Jul 12 2012

The U.S. is a nation of laws for SOME and not for OTHERS. Although some of the commentary in response to this open letter, is well worded, it is inaccurate in it's truth. The so-called laws were written by the European immigrants, for the purpose of protecting their position in this stolen land. Excluding even the indigenous people. The term "illegal immigrant" is more often used when referring to a person of color, particularly one of Latino heritage(currently). I know a few Europeans who are not yet citizens of the U.S. and have been here for many years. However, in all of our conversations about their status, not once have any of them ever recalled being labeled "illegal". Funny how that works.

Anonymous

Posted Jul 12 2012

BRAVO!! Like you I usually enjoy reading Ruben's take on immigration but was turned off by this opinion piece. My family is also in an immigration limbo. While in this limbo we pay our taxes,obey laws and live just like any other American family but still considered 'illegals'. I agree 100% with your take on the Republicans they do hate on immigrants and IMO are racists who claim to be Christians and do the complete opposite than any Christian I know. There are so many loopholes and twists in turns in immigration law that its impossible to group each case under one umbrella term. You are right immigrants are risk takers and have MANY reasons for coming here and really who knows why they are in the status they are in. Journalists really do need learn about immigration law and dig deeper into the lives of the people they report so negativly about, afterall these are human beings and not just part of the latest political hot topic. Your letter gives me a bit of hope when I feel like all are against anyone in this country who were not born here....

Anonymous

Posted Jul 14 2012

Hear! Hear!
Well thought out and written.
So many people have come to American from different avenues and have contributed to making this land of freedom the greatest country the special place that it is.
Legal/illegal.... we should all think about these concepts and what words, thoughts and meanings really are.

Anonymous

Posted Jul 15 2012

Beautiful article! Thanks for your thoughts. They were eye opening.

P.S.-From some of the comments, I feel like they just skimmed through this article without even thinking critically about what they were reading. -.-

Disclaimer: Comments do not necessarily reflect the views of New America Media. NAM reserves the right to edit or delete comments. Once published, comments are visible to search engines and will remain in their archives. If you do not want your identity connected to comments on this site, please refrain from commenting or use a handle or alias instead of your real name.