Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

'Illegal immigrant' is the uncomfortable truth

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
updated 11:20 AM EDT, Fri July 6, 2012
Ruben Navarrette says it doesn't help the cause of immigration reform to downplay the fact that millions of people crossed US borders illegally.
Ruben Navarrette says it doesn't help the cause of immigration reform to downplay the fact that millions of people crossed US borders illegally.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Those who say "illegal immigrant" is a slur are wrong
  • He says adult migrants who aren't legal immigrants broke the law to get to the U.S.
  • Navarrette: Migrants aren't criminals and are wrongly blamed for many of America's ills
  • Still, he says, it doesn't help to gloss over fact that immigration laws were broken

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN.com contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- What's in a name? For my friends and simpaticos in the immigration reform community, enough to go ballistic at the mere mention of the phrase: "illegal immigrant."

First, there's enough to be afraid of in this world -- from big government to monsters under the bed. We shouldn't be afraid of words. And when it comes time to declare a word or phrase offensive, we should be careful to do so judiciously and not go overboard.

That's my advice to my very good friend and business partner, Charles Garcia, for whom I have great affection and tremendous respect. He's my brother from another mother. That's true even on the rare occasion when he's wrong. And that's the case this week now that Charlie has written, in a thought-provoking column for CNN.com, that the phrase "illegal immigrant" is "biased" and "racially offensive." He also implied that it's a "slur" and -- borrowing language from George Orwell -- a "worn-out and useless phrase."

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Actually, it's none of the above. The phrase is accurate. It's the shoe that fits. It's reality. And, as is often the case with reality, it's hard for some people to accept.

What do you think about the term? Share your view with CNN iReport.

Apparently, that includes people like Justice Sonia Sotomayor who, in her first opinion on the Supreme Court -- in a 2009 case called Mohawk Industries v. Carpenter, which involved a business accused of employing illegal immigrants -- used the term "undocumented immigrant." According to The New York Times, this was the first time that a Supreme Court justice had used that phrase. Other justices had previously gone with "illegal immigrant."

Undocumented immigrant? Really? That's politically correct, but it's also absurd. Most of these people have plenty of documents. A woman who makes a living cleaning homes in my neighborhood once explained to me that she had a drawer full of fake green cards and IDs saying she was -- pick one -- a native-born U.S. citizen, legal resident or exchange student. Many illegal immigrants have Matricula ID cards issued by Mexican consulates, foreign passports, drivers licenses in some states and phony Social Security cards where all nine digits are "0's."

Obama: U.S. needs immigration reform
Lawmaker to Bieber: Remember your papers
Romney hammers Obama on immigration
Ariz. Gov. Brewer: This is not the end

Garcia: Why "illegal immigrant" is a slur

This isn't about documents. It has been my experience that many of those who have trouble with the phrase "illegal immigrant" are really troubled by something deeper -- the fact that, at the end of the day, by supporting a pathway to earned legal status, they're defending a group of people who engaged in unlawful activity. For some folks, this is messy business. So they try to sanitize it by changing the language.

As a columnist, I don't mind messy. I have never used "illegal aliens," and I never will. And I don't use "illegal" as a noun. But, like many other journalists, including those at CNN, I do use "illegal immigrant." And I refuse to accept that doing so is tantamount to a hate crime. I don't want to demean anyone. But, as someone who makes his living with words, I'd also prefer not to degrade the English language.

Besides, in more than 20 years of writing about illegal immigrants -- oops, there, I said it again -- I've been accused of defending lawbreakers thousands of times. I plead guilty as charged. I don't condone illegal immigration, but I do often defend illegal immigrants who are unfairly exploited, picked on and blamed for everything from crime to pollution to the quality of public schools.

As Charlie correctly points out in the part of the column with which I agree, a lot of that nonsense comes from the Republican Party and shameful politicians who think that raising our blood pressure over illegal immigration is a shortcut to helping them raise their poll numbers and raise funds from contributors. I've spanked many of these officials before, and I look forward to the next opportunity.

For the record, I'm not against high blood pressure. I've been known to raise it myself. I think that, if people are upset that our immigration system is broken, they have a right to be angry. But I also think they should direct their anger at government and politicians, and not at the immigrants themselves.

I also think that illegal immigrants are more of a positive than a negative. They make a contribution to the U.S. economy, do jobs Americans won't do, replenish the American spirit with hope and optimism and often raise good kids with a work ethic and strong traditional values that put the native-born to shame. They're not a liability. They're an asset.

Naturalized citizens explain why they're American by choice

But, c'mon. These people are not saints. 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.

If that sounds harsh, blame my upbringing. I'm the grandson of a Mexican immigrant who came to the United States legally during the Mexican Revolution and my father spent 36 years as a cop. It's in my DNA to not make excuses for wrongdoing.

My friends in the immigration reform community need to get over their uneasiness and stop sugar coating who these people are and what they've done to get here. We can't fix the problem of illegal immigration until we deal with it honesty and candidly.

As Charlie mentioned, Justice Anthony Kennedy has an interesting take on illegal immigration, which he incorporated into the majority opinion in the recent Supreme Court decision striking down most of the Arizona immigration law. Kennedy wrote: "As a general rule, it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain present in the United States."

True. But "present" doesn't just happen. The estimated 10 million illegal immigrants who are unlawfully in the United States didn't just appear one day like the genie out of Aladdin's lamp. Like the old saying goes: "If you see a turtle resting on a fence post, you can be sure someone put it there. It didn't get there by itself."

At some point in time, again with the exception of DREAM'ers, someone did something bad. That doesn't make them bad people. But they broke the law. We're not talking about criminal law, and so they're not "criminals." Immigration law is based in civil law, and that's why those who break it get deported and not imprisoned. But these people are still lawbreakers, and -- by definition -- illegal immigrants.

Sorry, Charlie.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT