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Two Views of 'Illegal'
"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 legalization.
"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 immigrants do.
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.