Our immigration policies are controversial. The topics we are debating may be valid; but, the words we are using in our discussions need to change. We supposedly have 11 million people in the United States with questionable documentation. We refer to this group of people as “illegal aliens” or “illegal immigrants. “ These terms are inhumane and are just another way that the United States divides itself between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
As immigration lawyer Shahid Haque-Hausrath explains, when a person is arrested in the United States, our criminal justice system protects his or her innocence until proven guilty. This is why we say a person “allegedly” committed a crime before his or her trial. When we speak of immigrants as “illegal,” we pre-assign guilt to them. We have no idea their status and sometimes they don’t either. The term “illegal alien” implies a level of wrongdoing that is equivalent to criminal behavior. It also implies that this group of people is undesirable to live in the United States. As Eli Wiesel the Nobel Peace Prize winner asks, “human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful… but how can they be illegal?”
Our federal immigration laws are very different from the connotation that the terms “illegal alien” and/or “illegal immigrants” imply. Our federal immigration laws say that a person in the United States without proper documentation is considered to have committed a federal misdemeanor infraction, under our civil not our criminal statutes. Many anti-immigration proponents have tried to criminalize undocumented workers, but their efforts have failed. We as a society continue to recognize that we violate basic human rights if we criminalize people fleeing their countries in search of a safer and better life for themselves and their families.
At this point, I am not validating whether this group of people should rightfully get to remain in the United States. I am asking the question why we impose such derogatory and inaccurate terms to their already challenging circumstances. Can’t we think of a better term to describe a person who may have entered the United States with proper documentation and is now desperate to remain with family members who still have their necessary papers? Wouldn’t we show our own humanity by stopping the usage of the terms “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant?” I argue that the term undocumented immigrant more specifically describes the status of this group of people. Before we dismiss them as criminals, we should think twice about the circumstances that brought them to the United States and how complex our immigration system must feel to them.