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Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

My political thought of the day?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the people who are in a country without permission. The people who aren’t citizens but also don’t have visas, green cards, or anything else of the sort. I’m talking about what’s commonly called illegal immigrants, but I’m hesitant to use the word because that’s precisely what I’ve been running over in my mind: what should we call people in this category?

As far as I can see, the usual contenders are illegal aliens (or just aliens), illegal immigrants, and undocumented immigrants (or just the undocumented). And each of these options seems problematic to me. The dictionary definition of an alien is someone who is living in one country but identifies or is under the authority of another. So when I was on study-abroad in England I might have properly been called an alien: I wasn’t intending to stay, still held an American passport, etc. But that’s not really a good description because lots of people who come to America illegally eventually bring their families over as well. They become active in local churches, send their kids to American schools, learn the language (or at least make sure their kids do), buy houses. Not all of them, but some of them. At some point you’re no longer an alien, a person who’s really a Mexican or whatever living in America. There’s also the fact that an alien is the very definition of an other and (to people like me raised on apocalyptic blockbuster movies) the word often feels like a threat. It’s just not a neutral term, and often as not it’s not all that accurate.

Illegal immigrant IMO is a little better, but it tends to tick off folks on the left and right pretty equally. For many people, immigrating means legal immigration, but again, the dictionary definition is about taking up a permanent residence. Still, we do have a legal process called immigration and these people didn’t go through it,* so I get how the whole concept of an illegal immigrant could sound like a contradiction in terms. From the progressive side, putting these people in the same category as criminals is also a tough sell, because to a large degree our society depends on the cheap labor they provide. (I talked about this issue a while back, here.) For me this impression is reinforced by the fact that when you find an illegal immigrant you don’t send them to jail or even (so far as I know) put them through the court system and fine them like we do for misdemeanors. You detain them and eventually deport them.

(*Interesting side note: many of these people did immigrate legally on temporary visas but then overstay them or violate their terms, like folks with student visas who go to work instead. But maybe that’s splitting hairs.)

My biggest concern here, though, is how easily “illegal immigrant” slides into “illegals.” I could almost accept illegal immigrant, with its suggestion that some specific thing you did was illegal – but saying who a person is is illegal? I’m not going along with that one either. My neighbors who don’t have green cards broke the law to get here, but they are valid people, they have worth, and they are quite often better Americans than I am. One person I know pays more in taxes than I do, didn’t gripe about jury duty and volunteers in our neighborhood much more than I do, even writes the congresswoman who represents our area – all without having any kind of a legal status. And as for undocumented? In many ways I prefer it because I think our economy depends on these people so much, it’s almost as if the government is winking at these people and reducing that law to a technicality, in the same category as (say) smoking marijuana or jaywalking. But I definitely get why not everyone sees it that way! And if I threw out alien because it wasn’t a neutral term, undocumented is at least that bad coming from the other direction.

So there you have it. I don’t have any real solutions here, which I think is to be expected because so many folks with so many different demographics and future plans fit into this group. I’ll probably continue using illegal immigrant, grit my teeth, and fight hard against anyone talking about “illegals.” But that’s mainly because I’m at a loss for what might work better.

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