Long before Donald Trump was elected 45th President of the United States, it became fashionable for the morally superior among us to haughtily proclaim that no person is illegal. The intent, of course, being to shame anyone using the term illegal immigrant to describe people who enter the United States without permission, i.e., by breaching our borders. Calling someone illegal, they say, is really calling them subhuman evoking images of slavery and hate. Instead, the term we are to use is undocumented immigrant as if to say it is just a matter of some missing paperwork.
The strategy of wielding the term illegal as a weapon has been effective in keeping many on the defensive because it has turned border security into a moral rather than a legal issue. After all, the United States is a nation of immigrants and these people we harshly call illegal are just the latest wave of immigrants to come here seeking a better life. In fact, they are so committed to seeking that better life that they have remained here despite being relegated to pernicious anonymity, working menial jobs off the books because they have to remain in the shadows lest they be found out and deported. So long as it remains solely a moral issue on those terms, we face a protracted fight to secure our borders.
Let’s quickly dispatch the matter of immigrant before going further. Immigrants are people who come to the United States and are granted permanent residence which distinguishes them from people who come on a temporary basis as visitors. While many immigrants become citizens at some point, it is not an automatic process. They are merely eligible but must apply for and be approved for citizenship. To claim that people who illegally enter the country and illegally take up permanent residence also makes them immigrants, just of a different type and therefore all privileges and opportunities available to legal immigrants should also be available to illegal immigrants is allow the thief to claim he is the illegal owner of property he stole and therefore is entitled to continue possessing it because he is an owner, just of a different type. That absurdity is not allowed to stand and no more should the absurdity of allowing people who are illegally living here to be considered immigrants, and, of course, to remain. So goodbye to the term immigrant in relation to those here illegally.
It seems we have to return to what should be the basics, but apparently are not. Namely, what are borders and why should countries control who is within them? Borders are boundaries of a territory, and when the territory is a country, the boundaries are legally inviolate meaning no country may enter the territory of another without permission. This extends to individuals not simply armies or other large groups. When countries enter the territory of another without permission we call that an invasion. Again, this extends to individuals.
Countries control who is within their borders because they legally have the right of self-determination and part of self-determination is maintaining their inviolate borders. With the locked door of inviolate borders established some time ago, countries developed means for identifying who belonged within their borders ultimately coming down to citizens who are legally entitled to be in the country on that basis, and non-citizens who are not. In legal parlance, non-citizens became known as aliens. No, not the little green men from Mars, but simply people who are not citizens of a country and therefore lack the legal entitlement to be there on their own.
Lacking legal entitlement does not prevent aliens from being in a country. Rather, it is up to a country to define how aliens may be within their inviolate borders. Over the course of time, there grew a set of laws among countries governing the conditions for admitting aliens and allowing them to stay which we see today in the likes of passports and visas as well as other forms such as asylum and refugee status. This is not to say that every country has the exact same rules, but that there are common terms and devices which allow for orderly movement among countries by aliens of other countries.
In the United States, we have two broad types of aliens. Resident aliens who live here under specific permission and conditions including ones with permission to stay permanently, they being the immigrants of the earlier discussion, and non-resident aliens who do not live here, but are allowed to be in the country for a specified period of time under certain conditions one of which is that they exit the country after the specified period of time. In both cases, the aliens are legal aliens because their entry into the country and subsequent stay are controlled by the legal means in place.
Anyone who does not enter by legal means, therefore, is an illegal alien, period. There is no subhuman status. There is no hatred. No xenophobia. Legally, such a person is not entitled to be in the United States because that person has invaded our inviolate borders by coming here illegally.
Now, we may have procedures and processes for how we deal with illegal aliens that can alter their status on an individual or a group basis. We may change the status immediately or make it subject to a particular period of time. We may well also declare that there can never be a change in status. It is entirely up to us being in control of our inviolate borders how we handle this legal issue.
A major aspect of a free society such as ours is ease of movement within the country. This may seem elementary until we consider the movie trope of totalitarian societies where citizens are subject to being randomly stopped by heavily accented imposing figures in dark clothes demanding, “Your papers, please!” Trope or not, a country does not require spot checks of papers, indeed does not require carrying of such papers if it has secure borders because everyone in the country is supposed to be there either by right as a citizen or permission as a legal alien.
Insecure borders dramatically undercut the assurance that everyone belongs in the country. It would be a major concern were it only that illegal aliens are an economic drain, but it is an existential concern in this age of terrorism. Without securing our borders, we leave ourselves open to terrorist attack. Yet, despite that very real danger, every effort to secure the borders is impeded and our intentions impugned on the altar of no one being illegal. Well, they are illegal if they came across our borders without permission and it is long past time to stop worrying about offending someone and instead worrying about defending our borders and ultimately ourselves.