shutterstock_78951343Unauthorized immigrants come to this country primarily for two reasons: to work, and to be reunited with family members who are already here. They would obviously prefer to come to this country legally, but our legal limits on immigration have for decades not matched either the realities of U.S. labor demand or the natural human desire for family unity. And so they opt to make the expensive, difficult, and dangerous decision to come without authorization because that is what they judge to be the best chance they and their families have for a better future. In other words, the overwhelming majority of unauthorized immigrants are as far from being hardened criminals as you could possibly get. They are gardeners and housekeepers; husbands and wives; parents with children. They are members of U.S. society and integral to the U.S. economy.

However, in its latest report, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) would have us believe that unauthorized immigrants are Public Enemy #1. The report, The Myth of the “Otherwise Law-Abiding” Illegal Alien, is basically a laundry list of every federal law which an unauthorized immigrant might break in coming to, living in, and working in the United States without authorization. Although the report is very thorough in its cataloging of statutes, it demonstrates a superficial understanding of criminality and how people—especially immigrants—come to be defined as “criminals.” Moreover, the report offers no practical, realistic guide to dealing with the presence of 11 million unauthorized men, women, and children. The chances are slim that they will all be deported in a modern-day redux of Operation Wetback. Nor are they likely to “self-deport.”

Among the more serious flaws of the CIS report is its failure to recognize the degree to which immigrants in general and unauthorized immigrants in particular are actively criminalized by the U.S. justice system. That is, new categories of criminality are created which are applied only to immigrants, but not to the native-born. For instance, both unauthorized immigrants and Legal Permanent Residents are subject to mandatory deportation if they have been convicted of an “aggravated felony.” However, under the 1996 immigration law, the crimes which qualify as an “aggravated felony” are different for an immigrant than they are for a native-born American. For an immigrant, an “aggravated felony” need not really be “aggravated” or even a “felony.” Instead, it includes many nonviolent and relatively minor offenses such as filing a false tax return or shoplifting—neither of which would be considered an “aggravated felony” for native-born citizens.

Similarly, in the case of unauthorized immigrants, Congress has generally defined “illegal entry” into the country as a misdemeanor, but “illegal re-entry” (coming here again without authorization) as a felony. Yet neither of these offenses is violent or threatening. This is why nonviolent immigration offenders comprise the vast majority of unauthorized immigrants who are apprehended and deported each year. In fact, research has shown that those immigrants most likely to be unauthorized—Mexican, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan men without a high-school diploma—are incarcerated at far lower rates than native-born men. In other words, in the overwhelming majority of cases, these are not “criminals” in any commonly understood sense of the word. They have not committed violent crimes or property crimes. And they are not threats to public safety or national security.

Leaving aside the dubious definitions of “criminal” which are applied to unauthorized immigrants by federal law, some practical questions remain. How far should we go—how many scarce law-enforcement resources and personnel should we devote—to expelling unauthorized landscapers and nannies from the country? How much damage are we willing to inflict upon U.S. society and the U.S. economy in the process? And to what end?

If you’re worried that the man who picks your vegetables or mows your lawn may have used a false Social Security number to get his job, the most realistic solution is the creation of a program by which he can earn legal status. That is far more practical than trying to track him down, and his coworkers, and his family and friends, in a crusade to remove from the country any non-citizen who has ever broken any law.

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