Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

'Illegal immigrant' is the uncomfortable truth

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
July 6, 2012 -- Updated 1520 GMT (2320 HKT)
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
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT