Is the term “illegal immigrant” offensive? That may just depend on who you ask. Two columns appeared on CNN within the last couple of days, one by Charles Garcia and another by Ruben Navarrette. The first believes “illegal immigrant” is not only a misnomer, but also biased and racially offensive. Navarrette, on the other hand, says the term reflects the reality of the situation, a sad reality that some find hard to accept.
I’m glad that CNN is showcasing these two articles because it includes others in the dialogue and shows that even those who want to see a pathway towards a legal status can disagree. I believe that each man has some good points to bring out, and those who lean more towards Navarrette’s perspective on the term “illegal immigrant,” if not his views about resolving the issue, should stop and read what Garcia has to say because what he has to say about people is often true.
I’ve heard many people compare illegal immigration to murder, as though both actions should be swiftly and harshly punished, lumping in young teenagers, poor families struggling to get by, drug dealers, and child molesters all in one basket. This is both unfair and unrealistic. Crossing the border illegally (or more commonly, overstaying a visa), is not the same as killing another human being or violating a child’s innocence.
Although there may be some illegal activities that are similar in nature to illegal immigration, capital offenses are not. Comparing illegal immigration, which is a civil offense, to murder, a criminal offense, is hyperbolic and dehumanizes people created in the image of God.
Thus, Garcia has some important things to point out, but saying someone is an “undocumented immigrant” instead of an “illegal immigrant” isn’t going to fix the harsh rhetoric and uncompassionate attitudes out there. If anything, it will stoke the fires of those who believe any path to a legal status is a descent into lawlessness.
Navarrette, who supports the DREAM Act and advocates for a solution to the illegal immigration problem that results in the granting of a legal status, believes “illegal” is an accurate description of what has been done (though, he points out, it is not a noun). Those who didn’t go through the right channels in order to live and work in this country have “engaged in unlawful activity.”
He goes on to say,
With the exception of DREAM Act kids involuntarily brought here by their parents, these people did something wrong. Illegal immigrants either overstayed a visa or crossed a border without authorization. That was wrong. Then many of them doubled down on the misdeed by using fake documents to procure employment or not paying income taxes on money earned, even though the federal government has set up an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number that allows illegal immigrants to pay taxes.
That may sound pretty harsh, but the sad truth is no non-citizen has a right to live and work in the U.S. penalty free. To deny the illegality of the action would be to embrace lawlessness. But let’s not use terms like “illegal immigrant” to cast our aspersions on others. We must encourage everyone to be subject to our governing authorities. Lawlessness cannot be condoned, but we shouldn’t confuse the advocacy of a different penalty (like a fine and probationary status) as lawlessness.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.(Rom. 13:1-7, ESV)