Many Undocumented Immigrants Say They Resent Being Treated Like Criminals, But Some of Their Opponents
Say There's No Gray Area When Laws Are Broken
By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post; January 10, 2008
To many illegal immigrants, sneaking into the United States is at worst a minor violation -- a breach of
the rules so small, and so necessary, as to be beyond even mild reproach.
To many Americans, the act of entering the United States without permission taints every aspect of an
illegal immigrant's existence in the country. It points to a disregard for the law, suggests that the
government has abdicated responsibility for borders and fuels outrage.
The chasm between the views has created an emotional response to one of the newest hot-button words in
the political lexicon: illegal.
Those opposed to illegal immigration insist on using the term instead of the more anodyne "undocumented
immigrant" as a litmus test of a person's commitment to restoring control of the borders and order in
Among immigrants, the word has become a slur.
"To call us illegal is to call us criminals," said Salvadoran-born Maria Isabel Rivas, 28, who trekked
across the Arizona desert seven years ago to join her husband in Herndon. "But how can this be a crime?
Our only crime is to come here and work like burros."
Rivas, a hotel maid who obtained a temporary work permit granted to Salvadorans after an earthquake,
said she considers herself law-abiding. When she set out for the United States, she said, "Honestly,
I didn't even think about the idea that I was breaking the laws of this country."
Rivas said she was preoccupied with the troubles that prompted her to leave El Salvador: the young daughter
and son whom she could afford to feed only rice and beans; the one-room adobe hut they seemed destined to
share with other relatives if Rivas remained.
If there had been a realistic way to enter the United States legally, she would have tried. But without
professional skills or relatives in the country who could sponsor her, she said, "I had no choice."
Francisco Ramirez, 39, a friend of Rivas's who took the same route into the United States nine years
before she did, said the casualness with which he and many of his countrymen violate U.S. immigration
laws might be rooted in their experiences during the civil war that ravaged El Salvador during the
1980s and early 1990s.
"The laws at the time there were against human liberty," said Ramirez, a construction worker who was
granted political asylum in the United States and lives in Herndon. "The government imprisoned me for
attending a peaceful demonstration. . . . I learned that, in general, you have to respect the law, of
course, but that when there are laws that are inhumane, it's more complicated. . . . So I think that if
you are dying of hunger, it's okay to cross the border."
But like many illegal immigrants, Ramirez cites reasons for entering illegally that include situations
that were not matters of life or death -- for instance, to be reunited with a parent or child.
"That is also in the category of a basic necessity," said Ramirez, who was separated from his son for
more than a decade. "The pain is inexplicable. And it's not good for the child to be without his mother
or father for so long."
So total is the lack of stigma that many undocumented immigrants feel about sneaking in that even pop
culture figures such as Cesar Millan, a dog trainer for celebrities and star of the cable show "Dog
Whisperer," make no apologies for their history.
"I am not ashamed to say it: I came to the United States illegally," wrote Millan, who left Mexico not
to escape starvation but to pursue stardom, in his best-selling book "Cesar's Way." For "the poor and
working class of Mexico, there is no other way to come to America except illegally. It's impossible," he wrote.
That attitude infuriates Norman Hammer, a Virginia real estate lawyer.
"People can't choose which law they want to abide by and which ones they don't," Hammer said. "It
destroys the fabric of this country."
Hammer, who had an office in Herndon for most of the past 25 years, said he recognizes that there might
not be enough legal workers to support the nation's economy. He said he is not opposed to increasing
entrance quotas, but he does object to offering the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants a path to
"What message does it send? It's like, 'Oh, you broke the law? Well, we'll forgive you.' You can't do
that. It's black and white," he said. "This might sound cruel and inhumane, but they have no rights
here. They've just got no right to be here."
Polls suggest that Americans support legal immigrants. According to a recent ABC News poll, 26 percent
of those surveyed said legal immigrants hurt the country, compared with 54 percent who said that illegal
But in several polls, when asked what worries them most about illegal immigrants, the majority of
respondents cited concerns that could also be applied to millions of poor legal Latin American immigrants
in the United States: that they use more in services than they pay in taxes, that they take jobs from
legal residents and that they don't share American culture and values.
So why the emphasis on illegal immigrants?
"It's easier for people psychologically to talk about the illegality, because there's a good deal of
ambivalence on immigration among all Americans," said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration
Studies, a Washington think tank that advocates for limits on all immigration. "The thing that's
easiest to address is the illegality, so that's to some extent what you're seeing."
Take Joseph Walker, 61, of Woodbridge. He is among hundreds of Prince William County residents who
e-mailed county supervisors in support of anti-illegal-immigration measures recently adopted there.
Walker, a public relations consultant, said his main objection to illegal immigration is "the
law-breaking aspect of it." But he also said he became concerned when he noticed Central Americans
congregating in shopping areas in Northern Virginia.
"There are places in Woodbridge where you can go and not hear a single word of English being spoken,
and that's very troubling to me, because it shows a lack of integration in the process. . . .
Sometimes it's difficult even to be understood by the store clerks."
Walker said he thinks immigrants' lack of assimilation might be linked to their residency status.
"Let's face it. It's not, by and large, doctors and lawyers who are sneaking across the border,"
he said. "I think when people are sneaking across the border, it seems they are more prone to stay
in their own enclaves and in houses with multiple families and any number of people and to create a
Walker said he can't know for sure how many immigrants who don't speak English are in the country
"They could have every right to be here," he said, adding that his support for the supervisors'
resolution had no basis in ethnic or racial prejudice.
"The rationale was to identify people who are causing trouble who are in the country illegally," he said.
"I have no problem with people who came here legally. . . . I don't have anything against multiculturalism.
Everyone comes from somewhere."
Walker said he sympathizes with illegal immigrants. "They're coming here for a better life, and you
can't blame people for doing that," he said. "At the same time, they are breaking the law, and I don't
consider it akin to a traffic violation. I would consider it breaking and entering. . . . It is a crime
to enter this country illegally, and everything else they do is a furtherance of that crime."
anodyne - verwässert
litmus test - Nagelprobe
slur - Verunglimpfung
burro - Esel, Arbeitstier
adobe - Lehmziegel
rationale - Argumentation, Begründung
1. Summarize the two opposing views of illegal immigration in your own words.
2. What reasons do illegal immigrants from the Latin and Central Anmericas bring forward to enter the United States?
3. What view as to illegal immigration does Norman Hammer, the Virginia real estate lawyer, hold?
4. What are the three main concerns most Americans have as to illegal immigrants? Use your own words.
5. What is it that Joseph Walker of Woodbridge resents about illegal immigration?
6. Do you think that increasing immigration quotas could stop illegal immigration once and for all?