Illegal Aliens Are Not Criminals

Here’s a simple question: are all illegal immigrants -- by definition -- criminals?

Not long ago, I would have answered: “Yes, of course.” In fact, in a column from 2005, I said as much and urged fellow Latinos not to gloss over the fact that these people broke the rules in entering the United States without authorization. I noted that there are those who don’t like the term "illegal immigrant" because they don’t think that people trying to feed their families should be labeled criminals.

“What else would we call them?” I wrote. “They broke the law. We can be sympathetic to their plight without condoning their actions. In order for Latinos to make real progress, first they have to stay in the real world.”

I still subscribe to the belief that one can be sympathetic to illegal immigrants without going off the deep end and denying that they’re here illegally. But, as to the question of whether they all deserve to be called criminals, I stand corrected.

And who better to set me straight than someone who would have to be considered an expert on the enforcement of immigration law? Assistant Homeland Security Secretary John Morton is currently head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A former federal prosecutor, Morton is no squishy liberal and he doesn’t take lawbreakers lightly. Yet, when I asked him during a recent interview whether illegal immigrants are de facto criminals, he answered: “Not necessarily.” It all depends, he said, on the specific circumstances of any one case. The thing to keep in mind is that the laws governing who is allowed to enter the country and under what circumstances aren’t criminal statutes.

“The immigration laws are civil in nature,” Morton said. “There are criminal immigration offenses but mainly they are misdemeanors in most instances, although a lot are serious felonies. For example, if you enter the country on a visa and you overstay your visa, that is a civil but not a criminal offense. There is some overlap. Sometimes you are here unlawfully and you’re also guilty of a crime. But it is not one to one.”