Monthly Archives: September 2012

Should the Media Use the Term “Illegal Alien?”

No less a news source than The New York Times has entered into the public debate about how best to describe foreign-born people living in the U.S. without permission. (See “Is ‘Illegal Immigrant’ the Right Description?,” by Margaret Sullivan.)

At last count, close to 300 people had entered comments on this article, representing every opinion from “Illegal alien is short, sweet and concise” and “A criminal is a criminal” to “Bigots and xenophobes happily use the term in their efforts to disparage, dehumanize, and condemn” and “Being inside the US without proper documentation is not an illegal act. Even less, the person that is doing it.”

I’ll put my two cents worth of legal insights on this matter here — and try to steer clear of thoughts on overall U.S. immigration policy.

1) Being in the U.S. without permission, whether due to an illegal entry or having overstayed a visa, is not a crime. It’s a civil violation. That may sound like a distinction without a difference, but you have only to look at the comments themselves to see how many people make a quick leap from “illegal” to “criminal.” A friend of mine who taught grade school once told me that some of her students expressed the opinion that border crossers should be shot on sight, because they were criminals. That suggests to me that the word “illegal” is being thrown around too loosely. (For the record, crossing the border without authorization is in fact a federal misdemeanor, under Title 8 Section 1325 of the U.S. Code, but the potential punishment is a fine of between $50 and $250 and/or a maximum of six months in jail — certainly not the death penalty).

2) The starkness of the word “illegal” implies that it’s easy to judge who has a right to be in the United States. It’s not. The complexities of immigration law have given rise to many gray areas. For example, the whole system of applying for asylum as a means of gaining protection from persecution in one’s home country presupposes that the person is already in the United States. But how are you supposed to get to the U.S., particularly if you’re, say, a Guatemalan peasant whose chances of gaining a U.S. entry visa are just about nil? Countless such people have entered the U.S. without permission and applied for asylum, and the U.S. has, where appropriate, granted their requests. Until their applications were accepted for processing, they could only be called “illegal” under the prevailing terminology — and yet, had they been arrested and placed in deportation proceedings, the law would have given them every right to apply for asylum as a defense. I don’t believe that such people are who most of the U.S. public think of when they hear the word “illegal,” but such cases are swept up into this overly broad term.

As another example of the gray area, I spent years of my practice as an immigration lawyer helping prepare applications for family members of U.S. lawful permanent residents who were waiting unlawfully in the U.S. for a visa to become available to them. Annual limits on the number of available family-based green cards mean that if you’re, say, the 22-year old daughter of a green card holder, you’re looking at an eight-year wait before you can legally enter or remain in the United States and join your perfectly legal family there. (The wait is much longer for family members from Mexico.) But because of legal bars to reentry that punish people for unlawful status, leaving the U.S. would have actually been the worst thing many such family members could have done — and the immigration authorities, recognizing this conundrum, actually assured immigration lawyers that they would hold off on enforcement activities against such family members. Yet without another word for them, they too are part of this “illegal alien” population.

Here on the Nolo site, we try to use the word “undocumented” whenever possible. It may not be perfect, but at least it recognizes that the person’s status may not be fixed. An “undocumented” person may, for more reasons than the public realizes, someday become “documented” under U.S. law.

Lottery-Eligible Countries for 2012 Registration (DV-2014) Announced

Wondering whether you can enter the United States green card (diversity visa) lottery this year? The U.S. Department of State (DOS) just published the instructions, which includes this year’s list of eligible and non-eligible countries. As you may know, the visa lottery is open only to natives of countries whose citizens are the least represented when it comes to U.S. immigration, so the list changes annually.

For DV-2014, here’s the list of countries whose natives are not eligible to register:

BANGLADESH
BRAZIL
CANADA
CHINA (mainland-born)
COLOMBIA
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
ECUADOR
EL SALVADOR
HAITI
INDIA
JAMAICA
MEXICO
PAKISTAN
PERU
PHILIPPINES
SOUTH KOREA
UNITED KINGDOM (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories, and
VIETNAM.

If you don’t see your country’s name on the list, and you meet the other eligibility requirements (described at “Winning a Green Card Through the Visa Lottery“), you are free to submit a registration, which you can do between noon on October 2, 2012, and noon on Saturday, November 3, 2012. (These are Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) (GMT-4).) Last year’s country list included Guatemala, but not this year’s!

Attending Naturalization Oath Ceremony Could Have Saved Immigrant From Deportation

A recent case out of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, called HECTOR DURAN-PICHARDO, Petitioner v. ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES, is a good reminder of why attending and passing your naturalization interview (for U.S. citizenship) is not enough by itself. You’ve got to actually complete the oath ceremony before you will be considered a U.S. citizen — and receive the benefits and protections that come with that status.

Mr. Duran-Pichardo, originally from the Dominican Republic, became a U.S. lawful permanent resident in 1981. He applied for naturalization in 1997, and attended his naturalization interview in 1998.  Apparently, he passed the examination, though he was given only a document stating that the “INS will notify you later of the final decision on your application.”

The trouble arose when the INS never got around to sending him that “decision,” much less an appointment for his oath ceremony. Mr. Duran-Picardo tried to call the agency many times, but says he ultimately was told that all or part of his naturalization file had been lost. At that point, he seems to have given up.

That was a bad idea, especially in light of Mr. Duran-Pichardo’s later activities: In 2008 (nearly ten years later), he pled guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possess narcotics and possession with intent to distribute cocaine. The sentence was 51 months’ imprisonment.

Later in 2008, the U.S. government began removal proceedings against Mr. Duran-Pichardo, alleging that he was deportable both due to the controlled substance violation and as an aggravated felon. In his defense, he claimed that he was either a U.S. citizen or should have been, given that the U.S. government itself was at fault in failing to finalize his naturalization application.

That argument got him nowhere. As is typical in cases where the U.S. immigration bureaucracy is at fault, it takes no responsibility for the consequences. This also illustrates the severe immigration consequences of any type of drug crime.

This case might not create much sympathy or worry for other U.S. citizenship applicants who think, “No problem, I’m not planning to sell drugs.” Nevertheless it’s an important reminder of the need to track the scheduling of your citizenship oath ceremony, and attend it when scheduled. Far less severe actions than a drug crime can make a person deportable — for example, see my article, “Can I Really Be Deported for Failing to Advise USCIS of My Change of Address?” What’s more, you need to maintain your eligibility for citizenship right up to the day of the oath ceremony. The longer it gets put off, the greater the risk that something will happen to affect your eligibility.