Did Columbus Have His Papers?
Lawrence Downes of the NYT has a great point when he says that the word illegal can be erased as long as you are not an undocumented immigrant. Martha Stewart went to prison - even this hasn't kept her from coming back full force as the nation's home interior design queen.
Let's see who else has been illegal.
JFK's father (producing and distributing alchoholic beverages during Prohibition)
Jesse James (Brad Pitt makes us forget James was a bad guy)
Oliver North (Iran Contra)
The Bush twins (underage drinking)
Duke of Windsor (for collaborating with the Nazis)
Jim Bowie (Alamo hero - for importing slaves after 1807, when it became illegal)
Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando as the Godfather)
George W. Bush (for DWI)
Senator David Vitter (for visiting prostitutes)
President Lyndon Johnson (for lots of things)
Robert MacNamara (for lying about the Vietnam War)
Dick Cheney (for shooting his friend)
Rudy Guiliani (for being a repeated adulterer)
These are just a few examples. Yet in everycase, the stigma of being "illegal" has been erased. Even Don Vito Corleone looks like a cool guy now.
But why is it that people who committed a misdemeanor by entering this country without permission are permanently given the stiff sentence of being called "illegal?" This is because the word illegal means something more. As Downes states, the word "illegal" is a code word - even if Lou Dobbs denies it.
The translation for this code is:
October 28, 2007
What Part of ‘Illegal’ Don’t You Understand?
By LAWRENCE DOWNES
New York Times
I am a human pileup of illegality. I am an illegal driver and an illegal parker and even an illegal walker, having at various times stretched or broken various laws and regulations that govern those parts of life. The offenses were trivial, and I feel sure I could endure the punishments — penalties and fines — and get on with my life. Nobody would deny me the chance to rehabilitate myself. Look at Martha Stewart, illegal stock trader, and George Steinbrenner, illegal campaign donor, to name two illegals whose crimes exceeded mine.
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.
“Illegal” is accurate insofar as it describes a person’s immigration status. About 60 percent of the people it applies to entered the country unlawfully. The rest are those who entered legally but did not leave when they were supposed to. The statutory penalties associated with their misdeeds are not insignificant, but neither are they criminal. You get caught, you get sent home.
Since the word modifies not the crime but the whole person, it goes too far. It spreads, like a stain that cannot wash out. It leaves its target diminished as a human, a lifetime member of a presumptive criminal class. People are often surprised to learn that illegal immigrants have rights. Really? Constitutional rights? But aren’t they illegal? Of course they have rights: they have the presumption of innocence and the civil liberties that the Constitution wisely bestows on all people, not just citizens.
Many people object to the alternate word “undocumented” as a politically correct euphemism, and they have a point. Someone who sneaked over the border and faked a Social Security number has little right to say: “Oops, I’m undocumented. I’m sure I have my papers here somewhere.”
But at least “undocumented” — and an even better word, “unauthorized” — contain the possibility of reparation and atonement, and allow for a sensible reaction proportional to the offense. The paralysis in Congress and the country over fixing our immigration laws stems from our inability to get our heads around the wrenching change involved in making an illegal person legal. Think of doing that with a crime, like cocaine dealing or arson. Unthinkable!
So people who want to enact sensible immigration policies to help everybody — to make the roads safer, as Gov. Eliot Spitzer would with his driver’s license plan, or to allow immigrants’ children to go to college or serve in the military — face the inevitable incredulity and outrage. How dare you! They’re illegal.
Meanwhile, out on the edges of the debate — edges that are coming closer to the mainstream every day — bigots pour all their loathing of Spanish-speaking people into the word. Rant about “illegals” — call them congenital criminals, lepers, thieves, unclean — and people will nod and applaud. They will send money to your Web site and heed your calls to deluge lawmakers with phone calls and faxes. Your TV ratings will go way up.
This is not only ugly, it is counterproductive, paralyzing any effort toward immigration reform. Comprehensive legislation in Congress and sensible policies at the state and local level have all been stymied and will be forever, as long as anything positive can be branded as “amnesty for illegals.”
We are stuck with a bogus, deceptive strategy — a 700-mile fence on a 2,000-mile border to stop a fraction of border crossers who are only 60 percent of the problem anyway, and scattershot raids to capture a few thousand members of a group of 12 million.
None of those enforcement policies have a trace of honesty or realism. At least they don’t reward illegals, and that, for now, is all this country wants.