facebook pixel
New Ideal - Reason | Individualism | Capitalism

Rethink the Term ‘Illegal Immigrant’

Using the term “illegal immigrant” highlights the injustice of the U.S. immigration system and the morality of the decision to come to America.

Share this article:

Ana, a frontline nurse during the pandemic, spent more than two years singularly focused on providing the best care for her patients and staying updated on scientific research surrounding COVID. Despite her exhaustion, she was happy to work.

Ana had put herself through nursing school and graduated with honors. She now devotes herself to her work and to building the best life possible for herself.

Originally from Central America, Ana decided to leave her country a few years ago. By her late teens, cartels had taken over her city. Cartel feuds, extortion and murder made it extremely unsafe, especially for a young woman. It was hard to focus on her education while her family faced demands from a cartel to use their business as a front to sell drugs. This environment of rampant violence and economic chaos made it impossible for an ambitious person like her to thrive.

Ana knew the ideal place was the U.S. because, while visiting a relative here years ago, she had seen America with her own eyes: the busy streets, the number of prosperous businesses, the safety, the abundance in the supermarket, the potential for growth — her home country paled in comparison. In America, she realized, someone like her could make the most out of life.

By any reasonable standard, Ana is an admirable person: she takes her life seriously and works hard to pursue her values. But there’s one more thing to know about Ana: she’s in the U.S. after overstaying her tourist visa. Some people call her an illegal immigrant.

But should we call people like Ana “illegal immigrants” — a term loaded with shame?

The anti-immigrant camp uses that term in an attempt to smear immigrants. Many like to paint a picture of illegal immigrants as gang members who jump the border to smuggle drugs and commit heinous crimes. But the reality is that most illegal immigrants are peaceful, hard-working people like Ana. A majority enter the U.S. on a temporary visa (which means they’ve been previously vetted like Ana) and decide to stay beyond their allotted time — which violates U.S. immigration laws.

Because of the pejorative intent of the term, it is understandable that people who think of themselves as pro-immigrant see it as offensive. Being staunchly pro-immigration, I too resisted using it, preferring euphemisms like “undocumented.” But I’ve changed my mind.

The term attempts to shame people like Ana, who come to America to work, to earn their own way, to build a better life. But the shame doesn’t lie with her — it lies with the system that is designed to keep her out.

If we rethink and repurpose the term “illegal immigrant,” we can use it to re-orient attention to this unjust system. We can use it to highlight the fact that our immigration system criminalizes the moral decision to come to America in pursuit of happiness, a system that treats wanting to work as a vice instead of a virtue. A system that criminalizes millions of people for wanting to make something of themselves by working — something that is otherwise rightly admired in America — is un-American.

Some people will ask: “why didn’t Ana come here legally?” Because the U.S. immigration system is designed to keep productive would-be immigrants like Ana out. Ana would have had to try to get a loan to pay thousands of dollars in fees and other visa requirements, wait out the process in her cartel-infested country and wander for years through a multilevel bureaucratic maze. And then she’d be a citizen, right? No, that’s just to gain authorization to study and work in the U.S. temporarily. And that’s only if she managed to qualify for one of a narrow list of visas in the first place. When I tell Americans about my own legal immigration story and what I had to go through, their jaws drop. The process is not feasible for the vast majority of productive people who want to live and work here, so it’s unsurprising that ambitious individuals like Ana end up immigrating illegally.

'A lot of peaceful, courageous people are eager to immigrate to the U.S. in order to work to make their lives better, but the immigration system locks them out.' Click To Tweet

A lot of peaceful, courageous people are eager to immigrate to the U.S. in order to work to make their lives better, but the immigration system locks them out. Those who dare to come anyway are made to live their life in the shadows and in fear, because their actions are illegal.

READ ALSO:  Ayn Rand’s Unique View of America

We should abandon euphemisms like “undocumented immigrants” and “unauthorized workers.” Those euphemisms imply that people like Ana have in fact done something wrong and only help mask the real problem: that these individuals are being criminalized by unjust laws for a moral decision that they made.

“Illegal immigrant” works as a smear because what it actually means is rarely put out in the open — that the presence of peaceful, hard-working people is illegal in America. It’s time we confront this shameful fact and bring clarity to the debate by using the term in the appropriate way. Repurposing it is about illuminating the injustice of the U.S. immigration system, not about abusing immigrants.

'“Illegal immigrant” works as a smear because what it actually means is rarely put out in the open — that the presence of peaceful, hard-working people is illegal in America.' Click To Tweet

Next time you hear the term “illegal immigrant,” don’t think of gang members or think it’s derogatory to call a hard-working immigrant that. Think of Ana and just how moral and brave her decision was to come to America, and how shameful it is that our immigration laws brand her a criminal.

This article was originally published by the Southern California News Group.


If you value the ideas presented here, please become an ARI Member today.

Do you have a comment or question?

Share this article:

Agustina Vergara Cid

Agustina Vergara Cid, LLB and LLM, is an associate fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute and an opinion columnist at the Orange County Register.

Updates from New Ideal

Book Image  

Listen to New Ideal Live!

New Ideal Live is the podcast that explores pressing cultural issues from the perspective of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, which upholds the ideals of reason, individualism, and capitalism.

Subscribe here.

Ayn Rand University App

Explore unique philosophical content that challenges conventional views — in courses you can take on the go.

Available on Google Play and
the App Store.

Welcome to New Ideal!

If you like what you’re reading, be sure to subscribe to our weekly newsletter! You’ll also receive a FREE copy of our book, Illuminating Ayn Rand.