No human is illegal, nor an alien

When you meet someone in a bar or on the bus or selling fruit on the side of the road, you may ask where they are from and how the are faring. But unless you work for the border patrol, it is not normal to ask their method of entry into the country. Even if you are writing a book on the subject, if you’ve just met someone, it’s an off-putting and loaded question.

Yesterday I met a man named Augustin who told me he was from Puebla, Mexico. He was selling flats of strawberries kitty-corner to my house in Boise and I went out to chat and buy a flat ($11). I gathered that he most likely came here illegally, though I did not ask him about it. When I told him I was going down to Mexico in a few months he complained that Americans can visit Mexico whenever they like but that it is very difficult for Mexicans to visit the United States. He also told me that another of the strawberry sellers had been arrested and reported to immigration the night before.

So a man who most likely entered the country illegally is selling fruit (probably illegally) on your neighbor’s lawn. What do you do? I brought him over dinner, which, in a complete coincidence (I swear), happened to be tacos from Los Betos.

The question of what we call people who are here illegally has not been answered to my satisfaction. A renewed campaign to end the use of the term “illegal immigrant,” or even worse term, “illegal,” has cropped up on the internet. I’ve wrestled with this phrasing for years as a reporter and my general rule of thumb is that crossing the border without proper documentation is illegal, but the people who do it cannot be referred to as “illegal.”

The media, particularly in the past few years, has grown lazy on this point of grammar and style. It is commonplace to hear “illegal immigrant” on the radio, television and to see it in the newspapers. But it is inaccurate and offensive.

While chatting with Augustin, I never once thought of his personhood as “illegal.” In fact, I was quite impressed with his scheme to buy a truckload of strawberries in Salinas, California and drive across the Northwest with a few buddies selling the berries on residential street corners. It was something that J.R. Simplot would have done. And it was quite convenient for me: I made six jars of jam last night.

In some ways, I viewed Augustin in the same way I view any foreigner I meet: as a fellow traveler. I considered offering him a place to stay, as so many people in foreign countries have offered me over the years.

I also saw him as a refugee who fled north in search of work and was engaged in a business model that was both extremely entrepreneurial and at the same time, somewhat desperate. While I admired his courage and drive to make it here, I also saw that he could use a leg up—even if it was just a taco and a brief chat. I found myself looking out for him, ready to intervene if the cops came to harass him again.

While the U.S. government draws great distinctions between political refugees, who are granted a path to citizenship and assistance adjusting to life in the United States, and people like Augustin, who are here illegally, and constantly under threat of deportation, there are many similarities between the groups. Refugio “Reg,” a blogger in L.A., is on a one-man crusade to re-frame our view of undocumented immigrants under the concept of economic refugees.

I like the term, but it requires a wholesale reshaping of immigration policy as well and seems a bit premature.

I’ve been toying with using some form of unauthorized, as in “The love stories of unauthorized migrants and their U.S. citizen partners,” but a friend who read an early synopsis of the book proposal argued that nobody would understand the term.

I used the term “undocumented” above, but I use it only as a fallback term. I think it is pretty meaningless, but a bit nicer sounding—perhaps because it’s passive—than “illegal.”

Another good solution is to just write about people as individuals and not attempt to place them in broad, and often damaging, categories. Perhaps we should do that with the terms “Democrat” and “Republican” as well.

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