Is it racist or wrong to use the term “illegal immigrant?” That’s a position that is getting more of a hearing these days as liberals seek to change not just the laws, but also the way we talk about the issue. To date, the New York Times has resisted the pressure to abolish the term, but the debate is heating up, and no one should be surprised if eventually the mainstream media replaces it with something more neutral like “undocumented immigrant” that makes the act of crossing the border without permission sound more like a bureaucratic oversight than an actual crime.
The latest blow struck on behalf of this effort came from NPR’s Maria Hinojosa who claimed that Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel likened the term to the way Nazis treated Jews. Wiesel is a person who stands above politics, and his moral authority to discuss just about any issue is not likely to be challenged. But whatever one might think about immigration or the plight of those who come here illegally, the attempt to eliminate the term, much less compare illegal immigrants to the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust, is absurd. Illegal immigrants are called illegal not because Americans view them with malice but because they are in this country illegally.
Hinojosa spoke of a conversation she said she had with Wiesel on Chris Hayes’s MSNBC show on Sunday:
If there is an authority, you [Wiesel] should be it. And he said, ‘Maria, don’t ever use the term ‘illegal immigrant.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because once you label a people ‘illegal,’ that is exactly what the Nazis did to Jews.’ You do not label a people ‘illegal.’ They have committed an illegal act. They are immigrants who crossed illegally. They are immigrants who crossed without papers. They are immigrants who crossed without permission. They are living in this country without permission. But they are not an illegal people.”
While anyone who grew up admiring Wiesel as a moral voice must approach any criticism of him with reluctance, if Hinojosa’s recollection is correct, he has, unfortunately, done something that he has often criticized: made an inappropriate use of a Holocaust analogy.
The implicit comparison here between Nazi race laws and the simple fact that the United States, like any sovereign nation, has the right to control entry into its borders is an abominable misuse of the legacy of the Holocaust. The analogy is also false because the dehumanization of the Jews was a pretext for their murder. No one, not even the most radical Know-Nothing anti-immigrant rabble-rousers, want to harm the illegals or deprive them of their humanity or destroy them as a people. They just want them to be deported for violating the law. It should also be pointed out that the Jews were not only not “illegal” in Europe, they were a people whose citizenship was illegally revoked by a criminal regime.
This argument is also disingenuous. This is not about language or humanity, but the desire of some people to treat immigration law as a mere technicality the violation of which ought to be treated as no worse than a traffic ticket. We understand that people like Jose Antonio Vargas, the well known journalist who is himself an illegal (and who appeared on the same MSNBC show with Hinojosa) have a vested interest in our doing so. But when he argues as he did on MSNBC that “conversations about immigration begin and end with the word illegal,” most Americans would be justified in replying that this is exactly as it should be.
Even those who believe that onerous restrictions on legal immigration ought to be loosened must acknowledge that violations of the law cannot be treated as trivial. While it is reasonable to argue that the laws should be changed, no one has a “right” to enter the United States illegally or to remain here.
The Democratic Party gave a full-throated defense of their right to be here at their recent convention, though President Obama has been shy about raising the issue at forums where he might have an audience that is not solely composed of adoring liberals. But whatever the country may ultimately decide to do about the situation, the attempt to treat a straightforward and descriptive term as a sign of racism that is reminiscent of the Nazis is unacceptable. If, as has often been said, the first person to invoke the Nazis in a political debate loses, it would appear Hinojosa, and by extension, Wiesel, has done just that.