Good thing I am not an illegal immigrant. There is no way out of that trap. It’s the crime you can’t make amends for. Nothing short of deportation will free you from it, such is the mood of the country today. And that is a problem.
America has a big problem with illegal immigration, but a big part of it stems from the word “illegal.” It pollutes the debate. It blocks solutions. Used dispassionately and technically, there is nothing wrong with it. Used as an irreducible modifier for a large and largely decent group of people, it is badly damaging. And as a code word for racial and ethnic hatred, it is detestable. -- Lawrence Downes, NYT
Downes' op-ed tries heroically to be fair. And often it succeeds. But only in spite of this central contention. And not often enough. Because the bottom line is that whether or not 'illegal immigrant' is an accurate, and therefore acceptable, term, is not dependent upon whether or not, or how many, racial-or-ethnic-haters use it. Racism directed at people who are of mixed European and indigenous American descent is contemptible. Ethnic hatred directed at people who are from ethnic regions north of the Isthmus of Panama is also. Use of the phrase 'illegal immigrant' is an ascription of fact. There are immigration laws. Illegal immigrants break those laws. That means they have immigrated illegally. That means -- until further notice -- that they are present in the United States illegally.
Yes: there is nowhere to hide here. You cannot jump out of your skin. Instead you must jump out of America. Your very existence in the United States is against the law. Sorry. That's the law. You don't like the law, change the law. And don't tell me that the use of the phrase 'illegal immigrant' prevents the law from ever being changed. Because if a description of fact causes people to determine that the fact should not legally be changed, then that's democracy at work. That is a problem, but it's not the problem of people who say 'illegal immigrant'. That's the illegal immigrants' problem.
Mood does not, must not, make facts unspeakable. That really pollutes the debate. Carbon dioxide starts outnumbering oxygen. That really blocks solutions. And no, Americans are not good Weberians. You will not get dispassionate technical language when the law is being violated as a matter of course by millions of foreigners with absolutely not one right to be physically present in the United States. You will get the truth.
Now for the compassionate sequence. Their willingness to take on that problem is often a reflection both of the tremendous desire to bring success and happiness to their families and of the tremendous promise, potential, power, and authority of the possibilities of a life worth living in the United States. It hurts to recognize that by legalizing illegal immigrants here, we are contradicting ourselves, making ourselves hypocrites. This hurts not just our self-esteem but our law. It admits that the law is pulling down its skirts only after they've been blown over its head. Bad show. Maybe, hopefully, lesson learned. The upside is that we take a rotten situation and make the best of it we possibly can. And then adjust decisively to make sure we never have to make the best of that rotten situation again.
And so again I go back to the grand bargain of reducing illegal immigration to ZERO -- something we can do if only we have the will -- in exchange for fining illegals here appropriately and very swiftly making citizens of them all. Citizenship ought to be an on/off switch. Either you are or you aren't. Vast gray areas put a terrible strain on not only citizenship itself but sovereignty. And I like American sovereignty. It's the only one we've got. And part of our sovereign citizenship includes the ability to accurately describe facts, regardless of whether vicious rubes latch on to them to avoid saying Wetback Is De Debil. There is language guided by civility and taste and then there is truthful language blackmailed.