The Part of "Illegal" I Don't Understand

QUESTION: "What part of 'illegal' don't you understand?"

This particular query has been posed to me dozens of times over the past week or so by way of telephone calls, e-mails and blog responses on It isn't really a question, of course, but a philosophical statement, a way of informing the person at whom it is aimed that there is no need to discuss illegal immigration with him because he obviously is an idiot.

The people who asked this rhetorical question were responding to a column I wrote about the DREAM Act, which would afford illegal residents who were carried into the country as children the opportunity to stay and work here by attending college for two years or joining the military.

Let's pretend for a minute that the questioners want an answer, however. Because there is one. In fact, there are several.

QUESTION: "What part of 'illegal' don't you understand?"

ANSWER No. 1: I don't understand the part that applies to a local woman who was brought to the U.S. from Mexico as a baby and recently graduated with honors from nursing school.

She wrote me to say, "I have my license to work as a registered nurse, but current immigration policy does not really cover people like me who want to come out of the shadows and become a contributing member of the country I love and grew up in."

I don't understand laws that exclude such a person from working here when the need for qualified individuals like her is so high that health-care institutions are recruiting nurses from countries like Korea, the Philippines and (ironically) Mexico.

ANSWER No. 2: I also don't understand the part in which politicians don't listen to educators like Dr. Allan Cameron, a retired teacher who helped to create the robotics team at Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix. These are the kids whose underwater robot defeated a machine designed by MIT students. Cameron told me, "Last year, one of our students graduated with a secondary-education teacher degree in mathematics. A bilingual, intelligent young man from the Hayden neighborhood, who is now hanging drywall."

Meantime, American high schools, including many in the Arizona, recruit foreign teachers in science and math.

ANSWER No. 3: I don't understand the part that treats "illegal" as a state of being, like original sin. It is like declaring a child a criminal for having been pushed around a department store in a stroller by a shoplifting mother. Faridodin 'Fredi' Lajvardi, who currently mentors the Carl Hayden robotics team, put it this way, "Passing the DREAM Act would help focus our resources on deporting those who are not contributing, law-abiding members of society. . . . Preventing qualified, undocumented students from pursuing education is akin to throwing away our investment . . . We spend approximately $70,000 per student to educate them from kindergarten through high school."

Cameron and Lajvardi keep in touch with former members of the robotics team. Among them is a soon-to-graduate engineer (another profession recruited from foreign countries). He was brought to the U.S. as a child. Since he can't work here, the young man may move to Canada, from which he has received several offers. Who knows? Maybe we'll recruit him back.

ANSWER No. 4: I don't understand the part that refuses to differentiate between drug dealers or gang members and these high-achieving, motivated and (yes) patriotic kids. In the end, perhaps those who parrot that overused question about immigration should answer it themselves.

What part of "illegal" don't YOU understand?

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