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Guest opinion

Immigration: Call them 'unauthorized'

To paraphrase the very model of the modern Dr. Strangelove, Donald Rumsfeld, "Would the world come to an end if we stopped using the term 'illegal immigrant'? Answer: No." Neither would the world end if the news media kept right on using it forever, as The Associated Press prefers.

It may not be all that important, in the scheme of things, but words do matter, and people do take sides on this issue, so here's my take.

The adjective "illegal" generates pejorative, negative reactions in the listener or reader. As Keith Cunningham-Parmeter explains, "Human beings view the world in metaphoric terms. ... Through metaphor, the immigrant becomes the alien, the alien becomes the illegal, and the illegal becomes the Mexican. ... [R]eferring to ... people as 'illegal aliens' is equivalent to referring to defendants awaiting trial as 'convicted criminals.'"

To the question, what part of "illegal" don't you understand? I answer: every bit of it, including the distinction between jaywalking and murder, between littering and grand theft; in short, between malum prohibitum and malum in se — that is, the things we've decided to regulate versus the things we all agree are evil.

Let's apply a little nuance and ask ourselves: Are the frail asylum-seekers fleeing political oppression in their home countries just as much illegal aliens as the tough guys who have been deported three times for violent criminal convictions? How about the Japanese business executive who overstays his visitor's visa by one day? By a week? By a year?

"[N]early half of all people described as 'illegal aliens' obtained their 'illegal' status by overstaying valid visas — a civil immigration violation that involves no criminal conduct whatsoever," Cunningham-Parmeter writes.

Read Immigration: Call them 'illegal'

Or how about the green card holder who has lived the life of the model immigrant for 20 or 30 years, only to pick up a single speeding ticket? Does the speeding ticket instantly and magically transform the immigrant into an evil "illegal alien?"

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The state of Alabama has just enacted the toughest local immigration law on the books, and following its provisions, some utility companies have begun to deny water and electric service to unauthorized immigrants.

But why stop there? Why not enact a law to deny service to every adult in Alabama ever convicted of domestic violence? After all, what part of "illegal" don't you understand? Wouldn't driving the wife-beaters from Alabama do more good than banishing its tomato pickers?

You'll notice I used the term "unauthorized." I prefer that to "undocumented" because, to be honest, many unauthorized aliens do indeed have documents — fake ones. Plus, unauthorized sends a clear message that something is wrong, without diving into the lake of punitive, pejorative metaphors.

"[M]etaphors that attempt to capture the essence of immigrants will inevitably miss the mark and therefore distort," Cunningham-Parmeter writes.

And, perhaps most importantly, "unauthorized" suggests the possibility of change, the ability of an authority (Congress) to change the legal status of the migrant. Even under today's statute, an unauthorized migrant may, through court order or agency decision, be granted relief from deportation through such means as asylum, cancellation of removal, and T and U visa statuses. From illegal to legal by the stroke of a pen.

Interestingly, in a break with some of my liberal kin, I don't mind the use of the word alien, for two reasons: It's part of the statute — a term of art, as we lawyers say. And I'm old enough to remember a time before space travel, when alien simply meant foreigner, rather than a dangerous green being from another galaxy. Also, I had the good fortune to learn a second language, Spanish, at a very early age, and my family traveled often to Mexico. Foreign was not alien to me. Travel abroad and second-language learning are excellent ways of defusing the otherness bug.

In the end, whether we use the word illegal or unauthorized, alien or migrant, or whether we call it a banana, the only thing that matters is whether, and when, we enact meaningful, and comprehensive, immigration reform. Toward that end, let's use language that's helpful rather than harmful.

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Dan Kowalski has been practicing immigration law since 1985. He edits Bender’s Immigration Bulletin and curates the LexisNexis Immigration Law Community, a free daily blog.

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2 comments on this story

Nov 29, 2011, 5:51 pm
-0 +0

hey Dan, about this otherness bug that bothers you, lets use language that appropriately defines what words intend to do do. You sir are a politically correct fool. You are also insulting to the people of alabama. You ude the term wife beater to describe some alabamans, In your world Dan, wouldnt Spouse irritator be more appropriate??  Using language that is helpful would be using the right language to describe intended definition. Illegal is illegal. What dont yo get????  I just sit in wonderment, not knowing what sway illegal law breaking job taking money taking illegal border crossers have over people like Dan.

Nov 29, 2011, 1:24 pm
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This is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever read.

Let’s examine the word “illegal”...it means “not legal”. If you being here violates the law…that means you’re here illegally. Hence, the term “illegal”.

This idiot better stick to immigration law, because he damn sure shouldn’t be teaching any English classes.

Through metaphor, the immigrant becomes the alien, the alien becomes the illegal, and the illegal becomes the Mexican. ...

This is race baiting. Just as the open borders crowd always does…when their arguments don’t work, just pull out the good ol’ race card. This race baiting is blatant desperation on the part of the open borders crown, it’s tired, and I have hope that not too many people are buying into this crap.

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