Regularly these days I read the words on social media: “What part of illegal do you not understand?” Sometimes the words come in all capital letters, the online equivalent of shouting; always they refer to undocumented immigration.
So, today I try to answer, to say what are the parts of illegal I do not understand. There are several.
I do not understand the word illegal when applied to a person, a human being. In the English language, there is no such word as “illegals.” My word processor just flagged it correctly as misspelled. A person cannot be illegal because that word applies to actions that violate a law. Driving more than five miles per hour above the posted speed limit is illegal (I suppose driving above it at all is technically so). Deliberately failing to report income on Form 1040 is illegal. Cutting through our backyard uninvited is illegal. So are grand larceny, murder, and human trafficking illegal. Clearly there are degrees of illegality, which is the reason we have the distinction between misdemeanors and felonies as well as grades of violation (involuntary manslaughter, capital murder, etc.). BUT (pardon my shout), a person cannot be illegal. Use of the term “illegals” is designed to dehumanize human beings, to label people as not-us, not our kind, not our equals, not in the same category of creature as we are. It is bigotry. That part of illegal I suppose I comprehend but do not understand.
How does commission of a misdemeanor offense render a person unworthy of protections under our law, unworthy of humane treatment, unfit for even normal human consideration as a person? First-time illegal entry into the United States is a misdemeanor. How is it that people so desperate to flee violence that they will risk the suffering which may be inflicted upon them here, when they cross our border illegally in hope of safety, come to be regarded as animals (by our president), as subhuman scum, as invading enemies? Do we think that way of people who cheat on their income taxes? Who litter our roadways? Who fish without a license or commit any other misdemeanor? One person breaks a law casually, for his or her own convenience or just through disregard for public safety or public goods. Another breaks a law fearfully but does so out of desperation. Why do we so furiously despise the desperate one? That part of illegal I do not understand.
The next part is harder: unjust laws. The reality of unjust laws is nothing new. From the prophet Isaiah come these words:
Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth, so as not to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain?
(Isaiah 10:1-4 NRSV)
Laws get written for various purposes. Some protect the public, others insulate the privileged, while still others enable the greedy and even the ruthless. The rich and influential can get laws passed that benefit them unfairly. People who differ in unpopular ways from the society’s current norms are oppressed by cruel laws designed to hurt and exclude them. It has, in its time, been illegal to free a slave, to marry a person of another race, or to vote without being male. It has also been quite legal to beat a wife or to sucker students, poor people, or the elderly into hugely oppressive borrowing of money. It was legal to redline cities and towns, preventing non-white buyers from purchasing homes in “white” areas. Also there have been offenses that were illegal but winked at by the public and by law enforcement, perhaps depending upon the perceived identity of the person breaking such a law. A back-alley crap game might lead to arrests but not a 50-50 at the local swim club, even when both violated the same gambling statute. Loitering has long been selective, as Starbucks has learned recently.
Police officers, prosecutors, and judges must use their heads, and they do. The basketball situational rule of, “No harm, no foul,” must sometimes prevail if an injustice is to be avoided. The police can’t pull over every driver who cuts a corner a little or strays slightly over the center line; neither can the IRS try to go after every taxpayer who fails to report a $10 tip. BUT the true problem comes from the iniquitous decrees and oppressive statutes of the kind against which Isaiah cries foul. Laws passed to protect the supposedly right people from the presence of the supposedly wrong people they despise just for being who they are, those are iniquitous laws. Statutes written and imposed to enable the greed of the already rich by exploiting the vulnerable are oppressive. Laws can be evil. They can be written to support and safeguard injustices. Many Americans have paid to see productions of Les Miserables, the story of a poor man imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. What part of hunger and wretchedness do we not understand? What part of desperation eludes us and blocks our empathy? What part of “yearning to breathe free” do we not get?