It’s More Complicated Than “Legal vs. Illegal”: An Open Letter to Ruben Navarrette
Sign up to stay up to date on the latest Immigration headlines via email.
Editor's Note: Is the term "illegal immigrant" a slur? Last year New America Media asked the media serving U.S. immigrant communities what term they use to describe undocumented immigrants: How Do Ethnic Media Say 'Illegal Immigrant'? Now the question is sparking a debate in mainstream media.
Last week Charles Garcia wrote a CNN opinion piece, “Why 'Illegal Immigrant' Is a Slur.” Columnist Ruben Navarrette responded with a CNN opinion piece titled, "'Illegal Immigrant' Is the Uncomfortable Truth."
In the following open letter to Ruben Navarrette, law school student and Dream Activist leader Prerna Lal, whose own immigration status is in limbo, argues that the term "illegal immigrant" doesn't accurately describe the fluidity of immigration status. The government allows people to move back and forth from one status to another, and live in a kind of legal limbo that is not reflected in the binary notion of "legal vs. illegal."
I enjoy your writing, probably more than most people. You hold President Obama accountable for his abhorrent immigration policies. You stick it to the Republicans for hating on immigrants because their hate has to do with the color of our skin. And you generally make a lot of sense.
But you are wrong when you say that “illegal immigrant” is the correct lexicon to use for people without proper immigration status because the shoe fits. The uncomfortable truth is not that “illegal immigrant” fits but that painting a wide range of complex immigration statuses with the broad brush of “illegal” is all too convenient, lazy and just plain wrong.
Honestly, I don’t know anyone who enjoys breaking the law. Some people immigrate here legally because they have the privilege of doing so while many others have to use improper channels to come here so that they can provide safety and refuge for their loved ones, or pursue their dreams in the land of opportunity. Many people eventually adjust their status and become legal residents, disproving the notion that being without proper immigration status is a permanent immutable condition. On the other end of the spectrum, many people are here with legal status simply because they or their parents or grandparents were privileged enough to be born here. Still, immigration status is far more amorphous and complicated than simply labeling someone a “legal” or “illegal” immigrant.
Take, for example, my own immigration case. My parents gained legal residency through my U.S. citizen grandmother but I was aged-out of the process and put in removal proceedings. I have a pending green card application and a pending cancellation of removal case in immigration court. While both applications are pending, I get to have work authorization, through which I have a driver’s license, state identification and a host of other privileges. I’m also eligible for deferred action. It is, hence, legally incorrect to call me an illegal immigrant (or even an undocumented immigrant), though many have resorted to doing so while telling me to get out of their country. I’m in legal limbo but I’m certainly not in the country illegally at this point.
And indeed, it is hard to tell who is in the country with or without a proper immigration status unless you are a qualified immigration attorney or judge. I work at an immigration law firm. Last week, we had a family come in for consultation because they thought they qualified for deferred action. It turns out that they should have received their green cards in the mail a long time ago. As another example, someone who thought he was DREAM Act-eligible came in for a consult to determine his eligibility for the deferred action program. His dad had naturalized when he was a minor and we had the pleasure of telling him that he was, in fact, a U.S. citizen. All too often, the government shifts people from one immigration status to another, blurring the line between who is in the country legally and who is here legally.