Two Views of 'Illegal'

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, 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 the interior.

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.

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