REALITY CHECK: Vocabulary clarifications


It seems that there is a lot of heat being generated over several issues currently under discussion that are increasingly divisive. The first and worst of these issues is the great "Immigration" debate. At this point it seems as if we are becoming polarized for the wrong reasons. There is not much questioning of the concept that the U.S. has always been a welcoming place for immigrants to come, and should remain so.

The heat is generated because too many people, especially in our government, ignore, or refuse to use, the word "legal" as the necessary modifier for "immigrant." The cliche that we are a "nation of immigrants" is generally true. What is lost from people’s minds is that for 300 years we have not had an "open border" that permitted uncontrolled access to enter.

People coming to the colonies were not allowed to leave their ships until their identities and status were established. Their names, ages, marital status, etc., were recorded by customs officials at their port of entry. The ship’s captain had to certify that they did not owe him money for their passage.

If they were not debt-free they were sold as indentured servants to pay their way. They also had to sign various oaths of allegiance to the King and to the colony where they landed. Even if they were already British subjects, they did not automatically become citizens of the colony. This was granted several years later after the authorities were convinced by their actions that the immigrants were entitled to the status of citizen with full civil rights.

The concept that citizenship is a precious right that needs to be earned has held true until very recently, and is still a part of our increasingly ignored immigration laws. We have always been a multicultural society that evolved into a nationality because the immigrants who came here legally wanted to become "Americans." They felt comfortable assuming a new identity even though they preserved many traditions and customs of their former lands. They were proud that they legally earned their new status of "citizen."

What has gone wrong seems to stem from two sources. One is that recent federal administrations have become progressively lax in enforcing our immigration laws. The southern border has become an almost fictional concept in the past 20 or so years. Illegally crossing there is not a serious problem for anyone making the effort. Once they are over the border, even if they are caught, most of the illegals stay here indefinitely.

Only a relative few are actually deported. This is because we are the only country in the world that grants "rights" to "persons" not to "citizens." Once they get here by illegal means these felons have the same rights to due process as if they were citizens. These processes are expensive and time consuming and quickly overwhelm the system. What evolves is a "catch and release" philosophy.

We choose not to detain them in custody, so they are set free with an appointment to return in several weeks or months to be processed. Most do not bother. They wander off, blend in, and become a kind of shadow population -- visible, but not seen.

The other source of our problem is that we are way too tolerant of this law breaking and too quick to make excuses for the lawbreakers. We gloss over their felony and refer to them as being merely "undocumented" instead of illegal. We are so tolerant of this law breaking that we count them and come up with what we believe are accurate statistics as to their numbers. Supposedly, about 40 percent of the 12,000,000 happy illegals floating around the country are not southern border hoppers. They are people who came here legally with short term passes, i.e. tourist visas or student visas, who simply did not leave when required and quietly blended into the population unnoticed.

It is an oxymoron that our enforcement agencies can identify and count these people, but not apprehend them. It is a tragedy that so many of us no longer believe that citizenship is important enough to be prized and only granted to those who demonstrate that they realize that freedom can only exist in places where the laws are respected and followed.

Weiland Ross is a Banner columnist.


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