Undocumented or Illegal?

notillegalI was listening to a discussion on immigration policy. Panelists included a college president, a priest, an immigration advocate, and one or two others. All of them at one time or another stressed the fact that being undocumented is a civil offense, not a criminal one. Thus, they argued that calling them criminals is wrong and unfairly maligns them. Perhaps you have heard this too? This is a partial truth and their conclusion is almost certainly wrong — and they undoubtedly know it.

Many of the estimated 11 million undocumented entered legally but then simply overstayed their visas. By some estimates this comprises up to 40% of the total. This failure to follow proper immigration procedures is a civil offense, subject to a small fine. But for the majority who evaded normal entry procedures, they have violated U.S. Code 1325: Improper entry by an alien. This is a criminal offense punishable by a fine and possible jail sentence of up to 6 months for a first offense. These immigrants are criminals.

Even for those who entered legally, many break other criminal laws simply to survive. These include:

  • Impersonation of a U.S. citizen to gain employment or benefits.
  • Driving without a license or insurance.
  • False statements to law enforcement officers.
  • Social Security fraud.
  • Failure to register for Selective Service.
  • Identity fraud
  • …and many others

You might hear the disclaimer that people are innocent until proven guilty, so one shouldn’t call them criminals before then. That is nonsense. Black’s Law Dictionary identifies a criminal as anyone who has been convicted of a crime or anyone who has performed a criminal offense. Not getting caught doesn’t alter the situation.

The bottom line is that attempting to whitewash the undocumented is fruitless and undermines the other reasonable arguments for humanely resolving their status.