“Illegal” is Not a Noun

At some point America crossed a border from correct territory into incorrect territory. We broke a grammatical law, and its time to go back to where we came from. By this I mean misuse of the word “illegal.”

  • “They’re hiring illegals.”
  • “Keep illegals out.”
  • “Those illegals aren’t paying any taxes.”
  • “She’s soft on illegals.”
  • “No amnesty for illegals.”
  • “Report all illegals.”

The Oxford English dictionary defines the word illegal:

“Contrary to or forbidden by law, especially criminal law.”

This breaks down from the Latin meaning, “not according to law.”

Lots of actions can be illegal. Things are only illegal in the sense that they are being possessed or used illegally. If an illegal substance or object is discovered, the law cannot be processed until it is discovered who is responsible for it, and what they are guilty of doing, that is, what law they have broken. No people are considered illegal in American law.

Possessing or using drugs can be illegal. Residing in a certain place unauthorized can be illegal. Driving can be illegal. Piracy can be illegal. Predation can be illegal. Forming contracts can be illegal. Vandalism can be illegal. Being alive cannot be illegal. At least, not yet. Until it is, we cannot call someone’s existence illegal, and therefore cannot call them illegal. If you jaywalk, you’re not an illegal pedestrian. We must strive for consistency.

20151030_syrians_and_iraq_refugees_arrive_at_skala_sykamias_lesvos_greece_2Being an undocumented immigrant, that is, existing in the U.S. without proper documents, is not a criminal offense. It is a civil offense. To call an undocumented immigrant an illegal alien is like calling a defendant a criminal. In addition, there are millions of immigrants whose status is dependent on current circumstances, even though they have not yet attained citizenship. It does not mean they have broken a law.

It is incorrect and derogatory to refer to a person as illegal (adjective), and it is especially derogatory to refer to a person as an illegal (noun). The Oxford English dictionary will back me up on that, as well as the great body of judicial literature, and Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. There’s also Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion on Arizona’s immigration law, declaring, “As a general rule, it is not a crime for a movable alien to remain in the United States.” In other words, the crime isn’t in being here, but was in deliberately arriving here unauthorized.

So? What’s the big deal? As immigration attorney Shahid Hague-Hausrath explains:

“The term ‘illegal alien’ implies that a person’s existence is criminal. I’m not aware of any other circumstance in our common vernacular where a crime is considered to render the individual – as opposed to the individual’s actions – as being illegal.  We don’t even refer to our most dangerous and vile criminals as being ‘illegal.'”

Furthermore, the attorney adds, “‘Illegal alien’ is not a legal term. An alien is defined as anyone who is not a citizen or national of the United States. However, ‘illegal alien’ is not a legal term in the Immigration and Nationality Act. For some, the use of the term ‘illegal alien’ is likely based on a misconception that an immigrant’s very presence in the United States is a criminal violation of the law. While the act of entering the country without inspection is a federal misdemeanor, and for repeat offenders could be a felony, the status of being present in the United States without a visa is not an ongoing criminal violation.”

In other words, you commit a crime when you cross a border illegally, but you are not still committing a crime afterward. If you are discovered to have done so, you are not still performing a criminal act. It is in the past. Your presence itself is not illegal, not to mention your existence.

To make your very being somewhere a crime would be known as a “status” offense. The U.S. and many other democracies avoid such laws as much as possible, because of the complications in due process and personal liberty such laws produce. Our identity surpasses our legal status. We need to be represented for who we are. This thing called immigration, which people have done for thousands of years, is shaped not only by law but also by politics, race, history, international relations, the global economy, religion, and our humanity.

This isn’t about picky grammar. All grammar matters. This is about what language means, and the consequence of bad language on reality. Do not abuse language in order to dehumanize people. That crosses boundaries into places we should not go, undermining our authority to judge the actions of others for their civil infractions. Do not abuse language as a defense mechanism against caring for others because of an infraction they committed. This isn’t about political correctness. It’s about linguistic, legal, and moral correctness. The more we dehumanize people with language, the easier it is to dehumanize them with our actions. And our policies.

Cease referring to undocumented immigrants as “illegals.” In the words of Jose Antonio,”It’s inflammatory, imprecise and, most of all, inaccurate.” All people are human, and bear the image of their maker. People who crossed a border illegally, or are dwelling somewhere without proper authorization, are unauthorized immigrants. More importantly, they’re human. Treat them like so.

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