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.
"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.
"There are places in Woodbridge where you can go and not hear a single word of English being spoken, and that's very troubling to me, because it shows a lack of integration in the process. . . . Sometimes it's difficult even to be understood by the store clerks."
Walker said he thinks immigrants' lack of assimilation might be linked to their residency status.
"Let's face it. It's not, by and large, doctors and lawyers who are sneaking across the border," he said. "I think when people are sneaking across the border, it seems they are more prone to stay in their own enclaves and in houses with multiple families and any number of people and to create a Latino subculture."
Walker said he can't know for sure how many immigrants who don't speak English are in the country illegally.
"They could have every right to be here," he said, adding that his support for the supervisors' resolution had no basis in ethnic or racial prejudice.
"The rationale was to identify people who are causing trouble who are in the country illegally," he said. "I have no problem with people who came here legally. . . . I don't have anything against multiculturalism. Everyone comes from somewhere."
Walker said he sympathizes with illegal immigrants. "They're coming here for a better life, and you can't blame people for doing that," he said. "At the same time, they are breaking the law, and I don't consider it akin to a traffic violation. I would consider it breaking and entering. . . . It is a crime to enter this country illegally, and everything else they do is a furtherance of that crime."