Featured in MEL Magazine: How "Illegal Alien" Became a Lightning Rod Issue in America
Supreme Court Justice Elena Sotomayor tells a room of Yale Law School kids in 2014 why she chooses to say “undocumented immigrant” rather than “illegal alien”: “To call them illegal aliens seemed and does seem insulting to me.”
That last bit rings true to Shahid Haque, an immigration lawyer in Montana who a decade ago published a blog post arguing that “illegal alien” is a dehumanizing phrase. The key shift from the origin of the word “alien” is that in 2019, it’s used as a shorthand to categorize black and brown immigrants. “The average American conjures a common image: a Mexican person. It’s a phrase that makes people feel better than another group, and makes it easy to blame ‘illegals’ as the source of problems,” Haque tells me. “The term ‘alien’ is defined in our laws, sure. But the phrase ‘illegal alien’ makes no sense. There’s no reference in the law to that. You wouldn’t call someone an illegal citizen if they commit a robbery. You’re not an illegal driver if you have a DUI.”
Over the course of his 11-year career, Haque has watched as immigration rules made it harder and harder for people to navigate the system. He argues that an immigrant can be unauthorized for a million different reasons, not merely because they “cheated the system” or “cut the line” as critics have claimed. “The act of entering the country illegally is a misdemeanor. Once you’re in, that’s not a crime you can be arrested over. Your existence isn’t criminal — you just committed an illegal act. And if, like many, you’ve overstayed a visa, well, you’ve not committed any crime at all,” he says. “That’s a civil infraction.”
He also points to Trump as a cheerleader for the framing of people as “illegal aliens,” and notes that more and more people seem to be making a political choice to stick with using “illegal alien” instead of any other term. And there is undeniably a race and class element to this framing — as a 2018 study found, people are prone to use stereotypes in deciding who they call an illegal alien. “We find that national origin, social class and criminal background powerfully shape perceptions of illegality. These findings reveal a new source of ethnic-based inequalities — ‘social illegality’ — that may potentially increase law enforcement scrutiny and influence the decisions of hiring managers, landlords, teachers and other members of the public,” concluded researchers René Flores and Ariela Schachter.
What comes next? Haque is more or less holding his breath until Trump leaves office, as the administration has made a mess while changing a variety of immigration rules and regulations. This has turned immigration courts and the oversight of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency into a clogged artery where people are floating in limbo, unable to appeal decisions and facing judges who have been given orders to hear fewer cases, Haque says, mirroring numerous claims from immigration attorneys and activists. He argues the system, now hyper-jammed, is fueling an increase in immigrants “without status” in the U.S., and that reformed policy should allow more people who don’t have immediate family already here. In the meantime, major U.S. corporations are benefiting wildly from a secondary labor market that’s easily disposable and willing to work for lower wages.
“People say that the immigration system is broken, but really, it’s functioning as designed. The problem is that it’s hurting a lot of people, and really ourselves as a nation. The system isn’t designed to let enough legal immigration for the right people, so what’s happening is there are no opportunities for large categories of people,” he says. “Before Trump, I don’t think anyone credible believed we could do an enforcement-only strategy, but somehow, that’s where we are now. And Democrats spending their time talking about only helping the most needy people, rather than pushing to make the entire system more fair.”
Perhaps these points are a bit moot — Haque doesn’t expect reform to happen anytime soon, let alone people to stop using the phrase “illegal alien.” It still stands as the tip of the iceberg for a social, economic and moral issue larger than George Washington could’ve ever imagined.