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“What About Illegal Don’t You Understand”


Eric Ward • Sep 24, 2008

Every so often when I am speaking or writing about the issue of immigration someone will inevitably say to me “what is it about illegal that you don’t understand?”  This “gotcha” statement is usually stated with an underlying smugness and finality that I suspect is supposed to undercut the very foundations of my main two arguments.  One, that each person in our society has a fundamental right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and two, that it is impossible for every American to achieve these inalienable rights with a broken immigration system that denies individuals and families fundamental civil and human rights in the United States.

I’ve heard that the argument over “legality” brings many conversations regarding immigration to a halt sending Americans, documented and undocumented running for cover.  I don’t happen to be one of those people. 

The charge of “illegality” is nothing more than a tactic to silence the debate on immigration. I refused to be silenced at a time when our neighbors our being “disappeared” off the streets of our cities, thousands die of dehydration in our deserts, sixteen year-olds work the factory floor fourteen hours a day so we can eat cheap chicken, and our society relishes blaming immigrants for everything from crime to climate change.

Until there is immigration reform in this country that allows Americans to take personal responsibility for the reasons that millions put their lives on the line to migrate to the United States without documents there will be no real solution.  To allow us to sleep better at night we’d rather accept that immigrants are criminals instead of victims of globalization.

Forty-five years ago Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from Birmingham Jail had this to say about the term illegal:  “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s anti-religious laws.”

I think if Martin Luther King Jr. were here with us today.  He would laugh at those who attempt to relegate immigration to a mere issue of illegal and legal.  I like to imagine that he would silence them with his own pronouncement that, regardless of how one feels about the law, what we are indeed seeing is one of the largest acts of civil disobedience to ever take place on American soil.

Many today conveniently choose to ignore that “illegals” is a loaded expression similar to the word “welfare queen” a term used to dehumanize African Americans during the Reagan era.  In an environment where the debate on immigration reform is increasingly steeped in racism, the term “illegals” is nothing more than a callous attempt by anti-immigrant organizations to further dehumanize millions of undocumented immigrants and refugees in our country.

The attempt to mainstream the term “illegals” disregards the immigration debate as it is framed now, a bigoted battle being waged by Nativists over who is an American and what America will look like.

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