Immigration: what part of ILLEGAL don't you understand?

The title of this post appears in the comments of every article you'll read dealing with immigration, often several times. One reader recently wrote: "Exactly what part of ILLEGAL don't you understand? (AND YES I PUT THAT IN ALL CAPS!)"

These are the words, we are to believe, of fervent law-and-order types, people who welcome legal immigrants -- people who wait their turn and go through the naturalization process -- with open arms. They recognize that we're a nation of immigrants and have nothing against those who play by the rules. And they're mad -- mad I tell you! -- when anyone dares to suggest that most -- not all, but most -- of the antipathy we see these days towards immigrants really stems from hostility towards people of different ethnicities and darker skin tones.

The argument sounds nice, but there are two problems with it. First, most people are not law-and-order absolutists who become outraged at other minor infractions. Being in this country illegally is not (currently) a violation of the criminal code, it's a civil code violation like letting your car's registration lapse. It's not a felony and it's not a misdemeanor. Most people simply don't work themselves into a lather about similar offenses (entering the country illegally is a misdemeanor, but many undocumented aliens entered legally and allowed their visas to expire).

Second, immigrants who are perfectly legal -- who did wait their turn in line and did go through the process -- face job discrimination every day, strongly suggesting that it's not just about (or mostly about) legal status.

More to the point -- and this is key -- the level of discrimination increases the further an immigrant's appearance is from the dominant white Anglo-Saxon ideal. That hip, sexy British bartender with the blond hair and blue eyes (you know the one I'm talking about) is welcomed in American society, yes, but the little brown guy cleaning the bar after closing time gets the shaft, even if he's gone through the exact same legal channels to get here.

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