Thursday, January 10, 2008

Illegal Persons

The Washington Post today has an article on the term "illegal" to describe undocumented immigrants. Opponents of undocumented immigrants use illegal because, in their words, "[T]hey are breaking the law, and I don't consider it akin to a traffic violation. I would consider it breaking and entering. . . . It is a crime to enter this country illegally, and everything else they do is a furtherance of that crime."

The immigrants themselves, though, have a flurry of responses to this. Primarily, they say that the law at issue here is fundamentally unjust -- it keeps parents away from children, and dooms millions to a life of subsistence living and grinding poverty. They also claim it's stigmatizing -- it wasn't in the article, but I've heard the argument that we don't use the term "illegal" to apply to any other crime. When I jaywalk, am I an "illegal walker"? Was Ken Lay an "illegal CEO"?

But actually that debate, interesting as it is, is not what motivates this post. Rather, I wanted to highlight how one opponent of undocumented immigration characterized his support of a harsh crackdown bill in Prince Williams County, Virginia:
"There are places in Woodbridge where you can go and not hear a single word of English being spoken, and that's very troubling to me, because it shows a lack of integration in the process. . . . Sometimes it's difficult even to be understood by the store clerks."

Walker said he thinks immigrants' lack of assimilation might be linked to their residency status.

"Let's face it. It's not, by and large, doctors and lawyers who are sneaking across the border," he said. "I think when people are sneaking across the border, it seems they are more prone to stay in their own enclaves and in houses with multiple families and any number of people and to create a Latino subculture."

Walker said he can't know for sure how many immigrants who don't speak English are in the country illegally.

"They could have every right to be here," he said, adding that his support for the supervisors' resolution had no basis in ethnic or racial prejudice.

Let's review. Mr. Walker supports this resolution because, a) many immigrants he sees don't speak English, or don't speak it as well as he'd like, b) immigrants aren't assimilating quickly enough, c) immigrants are from the wrong social class, d) their forming "enclaves" with "multiple families" and thus creating "a Latino subculture" and e) he has no idea the degree to which any of these "harms" correlate to legal or illegal status.

Then he tells us his support has "no basis in ethnic or racial prejudice".

That entire line of reasoning was a prolonged flurry fearful of, to quote him directly, the creation of a "Latino subculture". That's the essence of ethnic prejudice! The term dissolves into nothingness if this isn't included. Indeed, this man can't even resort to the usual dodge about how he's not demanding Latinos act "White", he just wants them to adopt universal values of hard work. These men and women hold down jobs. They work long hours. They build businesses. They contribute to the economy. So long as they do that, I couldn't care less how they decorate their home or what foods they eat or what friends the associate or what language they speak to their pals.

Even hardened bigots often do not object to the presence of a few token minorities in their midst. What they rebel against is the assertion of any independent identity against that of the dominant group. Charles Lindburgh, a notorious anti-Semite, once helped bring over an entire ship full of Jewish refugees from Germany. Writing in his diary, he stated that "A few Jews add strength and character to a country, but too many create chaos." That's anti-Semitism. The litmus test for prejudice isn't that you're willing to concede that a few minorities can enjoy America's bounty so long as they keep quiet and don't remind anybody that they have their own culture. If you're willing to allow Jews in America only insofar as we're willing to stay invisible and out of your way, you're an anti-Semite, plain and simple. If you're willing to allow Latinos in America only if they act White -- even if they hold a job, even if they employ workers, even if they want nothing more than to live the American dream -- you're a racist, equally simple.


Stentor said...

The funny thing is that most people who are here without status are not actually committing crimes -- most immigration law-breaking (certainly including sneaking across the border for the first time) is a *civil* violation.

PG said...

Stentor, people who cross the border without permission are guilty of a criminal misdemeanor. Part of the crackdown by Border Agents in the last few years has been to grab crossers, stick them in jail for a couple of months, and then shove them back over the border. People who enter the country legally and then overstay their visas are guilty of a civil violation.
I think this is an appropriate distinction -- someone who sneaks across the border clearly has a guilty state of mind (otherwise, why sneak?), whereas someone who overstays a visa at least theoretically could have done so unintentionally and in good faith.

David, if it had been illegal for Ken Lay to become a CEO, then yes, he would have been an illegal CEO. In the way you are using illegal as an adjective, an illegal immigrant would not be someone who immigrated illegally, but who committed an illegal act while being an immigrant. That's quite different from how most people use the phrase "illegal immigrant," by which they mean "person who immigrated in violation of law." I think it's stigmatizing (and just bad English) to call someone an "illegal," but it's a reasonable adjective to modify the word immigrant if what someone did was to immigrate without legal permission to do so. If I start practicing law today, without having been admitted to a bar nor under the supervision of someone who has been admitted, I am an "illegal lawyer" because we have laws governing the practice of law. You may think those laws are wrong or even unconstitutional, but they are still the law.

I agree that Walker is an easy example of someone whose opposition to immigration is based in prejudice. Even if we changed the law so that low-wage employers actually got visas for their employees and they were all legal immigrants, someone like him still would be complaining about the rise of Latino enclaves. (Just like his bigoted predecessors complained about other ethnic enclaves.)
However, I think there is a more legitimate complaint about immigrants who either themselves entered the U.S. illegally, or who aid and abet those who do.

And in some communities, having a half dozen adults who each drives his own car live in one apartment or one house does create a genuine parking problem. (I don't know if you've ever lived in Northern Virginia, but parking is treated as a very serious issue there.) Certainly people who are applying for a rental have an obligation to be honest about how many people will reside there. There is no such obligation for homeowners, of course, but it is troubling if someone moves into a neighborhood who is indifferent to the well being of that pre-existing geographic community, and who favors an ethnic community over it.

I would consider my grandmother -- who speaks relatively little English and never held a wage-paying job -- not to be assimilated by most standards, yet she has a strong sense of community for where she lives *as well as* for her ethnic group. She knows the neighbors, and the people who work at the grocery stores in town. Even if there are things that she would have found perfectly OK back in India, she is cognizant that they are not socially acceptable where she lives now, and she doesn't take the attitude that other people must change in order to accommodate her traditions. (E.g., when her brother visited and wore the village dress"of a white shirt and long sort of skirt, with no underclothes, she scolded him because while that's fine in India, she was aware that it was not fine in our very non-Indian town. There also was the problem of his thinking it was OK to pee on the side of the road in broad daylight, but that goes into the area of a difference in law and not just custom.) I think the people who have a problem with a Latino community arising are definitely bigots, because this community does nothing to harm their interests. However, I have more sympathy with people who are troubled by a change in an existing community that imposes costs on them, even if they are relatively small costs of less parking and such.