From time to time, I get into discussions (arguments) about “illegal immigrants.” Because it tends to be the same discussion over and over again, I thought I’d play out for my readers how it tends to go, based on an actual conversation I once had, with someone I’ll name “Steve”:
Me: Referring to migrants generally as “terrorists” or “illegal immigrants” is like referring to priests generally as “child abusers.” If you do one, you’re in the same general category as people who do the other. And if you’re a priest, please keep in mind that the terms used in the Church’s magisterial documents are “migrants” and “refugees.”
Steve: If they don’t come into the country legally, then they’re illegal immigrants.
Me: What do you mean? “Illegal immigrants” isn’t a term used that way in US law. Similarly, we don’t refer to citizens who exceed speed limits as “illegals.”
Steve: We call those people “criminals.” And “illegal immigrant” isn’t just a made-up term.
Me: It’s a term in US law. But it’s not used in US law in the way you’re using it here.
Steve: Well, aren’t they criminals?
Me: Who are we talking about here? Migrants generally, or a specific subset of migrants? And if a subset, which set?
Steve: If they don’t have permission to come here, then they’re breaking the law. And you can call them whatever you want but if they cross the border they are breaking the law.
Me: That’s actually not true. And that’s not even what US law says. I’d recommend taking a look at the US Code on asylum, for example. 8 USC 1158.
Steve: Asylum has to be given to them. You can’t just let everyone in. That’s how we get problems.
Me: Actually, in order to legally apply for asylum, you have to do it after coming into the United States. You don’t even qualify if you’re not in the country. It literally happens from people just coming in. And it’s totally legal. But, as an aside, at no point did I say we should “just let everyone in.”
Steve: Fine. So put them in detention centers.
Me: What does that have to do with the question of when to use the term “illegal immigrant?”
Steve: Well, if they come over that way then it’s fine, but if they just sneak across the border then that’s when they come illegally to the US. I don’t care what you call them. They are criminals if they come over illegally.
Me: You can certainly say what you want. But US law disagrees with you. You’re not actually expressing a respect for the law. You’re making it up, at the expense of the vulnerable.
Steve: How? You can’t just walk into any country. If that is not the law then we should change it.
Me: The law for asylum seekers is that you can just walk into the country. That’s actually the law.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.