Ordinarily we would not respond to race-baiting. However, Laura Ingraham’s recent remarks about Justice Sonia Sotomayor provide an opportunity to shed light on an important topic.
While addressing a group of law students at Yale University, Justice Sotomayor explained her preference for the word “undocumented” as opposed to “illegal” to denote immigrants who are “out of status.”
The conservative radio host criticized Justice Sotomayor’s use of the term “undocumented,” claiming that it revealed her allegiance to her “immigrant family” rather than the “rule of law” and the US Constitution. Putting aside the fact that neither Justice Sotomayor (born in the Bronx) or her parents (born in Puerto Rico, an unincorporated US territory) are immigrants, the status of being “undocumented” in the US is a civil violation, not criminal offense. In Arizona v. United States, the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision on Arizona’s SB 1070, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said, “It is not a crime for a removable alien to remain present in the United States.”
Years of widespread use of the term “illegal” has seeped into our collective vocabulary and consciousness. The word, however, is a misnomer. Undocumented immigrants who are in this country are not committing a crime.
The term “illegal” assigns a state of criminality to a person’s being that reinforces historical views of people as property. It is a judgment, not of a person’s act, but of the person herself. Rather than deviate from the principals of the Constitution, Justice Sotomayor’s use of the word “undocumented” acknowledges that all people are created equal, and that no group can be relegated to a state of lawlessness. Unfortunately, referring to people as “illegal” has shaped this country’s approach to immigration. As a result, undocumented immigrants are often exploited, treated with disdain, and live under the constant threat of family separation.
This reality makes Ingraham’s rant even more ironic: “So we have no rule of law. We are going to pick and choose who has to follow the law in the United States.” Perhaps she is referring to the aristocratic privilege of avoiding or minimizing penalty so significantly under certain circumstances that it is tantamount to a pardon. To the contrary, the immigration bill proposed by the Senate in 2013, entails a long and arduous passage to legalization, which includes heavy fines, processing fees, and a wait of well over a decade. What sort of ‘aristocratic privilege’ is an undocumented immigrant gaining?
The PRBA will host an immigration forum that will discuss the topics of criminalizing immigration, the exercise of sovereign autonomy versus judicial discretion and moral considerations, and what comprises the ideal DREAM Act. This forum will take place in a few months; we hope you will put it on your calendar once the date is announced.