The Use of “Illegal” in Academia: An Unscholarly Approach

It seemed like yesterday when I arrived in London ready to begin the academic year in weather that was surprisingly warmer than I expected. I was eager to develop the ability to look at an issue so personal to me in a new way so that I could contribute to an intelligent debate about migration. I was hungry for facts, theories, philosophical and legal frameworks to help steer a conversation in a more meaningful and productive way.

I had gotten tired of the pervasive rhetoric that plagues most public debates, especially those we have seen on immigration policy in the United States and the United Kingdom. I had shared my personal story of deportation over a year ago hoping to convince others to get past the black and white view of immigrants lacking a legal status; one in which you are either judged as an illegal that deserved to be expelled from a country or deemed a traitor who had abandoned her country of citizenship. However, articles that would include my personal account were bombarded with hundreds of comments like those below that in some shape or form vilified us:

‘…Most people here in the US see you ‘as a problem’ and you’re ‘stigmatized’. You’re the illegal alien. Your parents had no respect for our laws and borders and they and you are resented for that here’ –UT San Diego reader (September 15, 2013)

‘…Although the humanistic factor never dies… we should care less for those that decided to flee our country [Mexico] and believed they could live outside the laws of such countries that deports them… for breaking the law’. (translated from Spanish) – Frontera (September 6, 2013)

‘…as far as you and your family goes ,you got what was coming to you. your family did not know this could happen when your parents willingly broke the law by overstaying their visa ,or crossing the border illegaly? didnt your parents know that maybe someday you had to go back to mexico because they condemn to a life in the shadows by dragging you with them to commit an illegal act?…’ – Colorlines reader (August 14, 2013)

‘The reason these people were deported was because they have committed crimes. They weren’t picked up off the streets and deported because they were here illegally. Currently, illegals can only be deported from our jails if they have committed three crimes’. – New York Times reader (May 8, 2013)

‘Is the United States……NUTS……????????? Stop this nonsense & please [call] them illegals, not undocumented. They broke a law & should not be rewarded. There are lots of people waiting in line legally that deserve the right to come to the US’. – New York Times reader (May 8, 2013)

‘…speaking as a liberal progressive these deportees need to stay put, no second chance. There are far too many other people in other parts of the world that have been waiting for a green card for years. They should take priority over a deported illegal’. – New York Times reader (May 8, 2013)

‘My sympathy is limited by the fact that these people were deported because they were in the country illegally. They should get in line with the millions of others that are waiting and hoping, following the legal path’. HuffingtonPost reader (April 24, 213)

‘The USA, if it is a sovereign nation, chooses who to allow in, when, and how many. The illegal aliens do not get to decide these things, though that is the way it appears to have been working since the seventies’. – AlterNet Reader (September 9, 2012)

Drop the I-word
Credit: Drop the I-word campaign

I began to get used to the negative views, even anticipating comments as expressed by most individuals who rarely engaged in an open dialogue about how someone like me could find herself in circumstances of “illegality.” Oftentimes, the other side of the story is overlooked, that which involves systems, including economical, social, and political frameworks that also create situations of “illegality” for millions. Does critical thinking on this matter not call upon us to question if such laws embody the principles of fairness and dignity which have been deemed as the foundation of most liberal democracies? This is what I expected entering into the academic setting, and anticipated a change in how immigrants are talked about.

Surprisingly, academia is not immune to the biases of those that lack an in-depth understanding of the issue. Particularly here in London, I often hear a professor in class or a researcher in a public lecture use the word illegal. In completing the readings I am assigned in my courses, I discover that the most commonly used label used by scholars to describe the experience and conditions of undocumented immigrants is illegal. I find it quite odd to witness the use of this term, especially when the objective of these “scholarly” debates is to humanize the experience of migrant communities.

Despite the polarized debate about immigration in the United States, I am thankful for advocacy groups that demand a shifting view of migrants as seen in the “Drop the I-word” campaigns. Their success has reached tangible results with media publications like the Associated Press dropping the use of the illegal immigrant label recognizing its lack of objectivity. This year, the campaign also reached the academic arena, including the UCLA and UC Berkeley campuses when their student governments passed a resolution to ban the use of the term they declared to be ‘racially derogatory, offensive and unfair’. To what extent will this translate to scholars adopting this position? Will academia oppose such efforts and view them as too liberal?

The Ryerson University’s Centre for Immigration and Settlement recently released a report which also calls for a responsible approach to describing undocumented migrants. The report argues for the adoption of a new term striking a middle ground in the debate: ‘Illegalized immigrant’. The merit of the argument is that it acknowledges the power of language, on how it is used as a tool to elicit emotional responses from individuals which then translate into behavior in communities and institutions that engage with immigrants. The position of these scholars on the use of the term ‘illegal’ to label a group of people is that it is de-humanizing and the consequences can be evidenced in the hostile environments they live in. There is also recognition of a process of “illegalization” by factors like stringent immigration policies that play a role in the legal status of migrants. As someone who lived most of her life without documentation, I agree.

In a world that has constantly changed territorial boundaries and one that will continue to experience an inevitable increase in human mobility, it is only for the un-critical minds that resort to the use of the term illegal. For those seeking to research and further their understanding of immigrants from a human rights context, it becomes our responsibility to use terminology that is sensitive to the communities being studied. Language that blames migrants for the legal status they hold has no place in academia. Even at the international level, there is recognition of this principle, and human rights law instruments coming from international bodies like the United Nations refer to migrants lacking a legal status as “irregular”, NOT “illegal”. If we hope to change the conversation around migration, this change needs to happen in our day-to-day conversations with others, in the written scholarly work we publish, and even in the comments, we leave at the end of an article.

Click here for more on the “Drop the I-word” campaign:

Some organizations in UK and Europe involved in similar efforts:

No One is Illegal – UK

No One Is Illegal Network – Sweden

Published in Latina Lista on December 10, 2013

Click here for a version of the blog post in Spanish.

Update on 22-Feb-14: Spanish translation of article available


Falling Prey to Immigration Fraud

I was heading to a spot where I could have some privacy for my scheduled call. 4 o’clock pm arrived and I dialed the number to reach the immigration attorney’s office, located in Pasadena, CA, I was advised to contact. After 4 minutes of being on-hold, Mr. M. picks up the phone on the other line and we would begin a conversation which had become too familiar.

Mr. M: “Tell me about your case”

Nancy: “My parents started a family case when I was underage. They hired a notary that worked with an attorney (let’s call her Attorney#1) to file our application for political asylum.”

Mr. M: “Hmm…and you are a national from Mexico, correct?”

Nancy: “Yes, my parents were told that by filing for political asylum, in the case that they did not qualify, they could submit a motion to apply for legal residency through cancellation of removal, as we met the qualifying criteria of having a minimum of 10 years of residence in the U.S. and were in good moral character”

Mr. M: “I hear of many individuals like your parents who are tricked into this legal proceeding. It’s fraudulent.  To qualify for cancellation of removal, aside from the residency and good moral character requirements, you have to establish extreme hardship that a removal from the U.S. would cause you or any qualifying U.S. citizen or legal resident relative. The burden of proof is very high on the applicant to demonstrate this hardship, and only granted in a very small percentage of cases.”

Credit: Texas Attorney
Photo Credit: Texas Attorney General

And indeed, this is not the first time I hear this legal assessment. For starters, I had given up contacting immigration attorneys because it seemed I had already explored all legal options to remedy my situation. So far, I had found none.

For a moment, it felt I was wasting my time with this call, but I did not want to disappoint the mom of a close friend of mine who had visited me in Tijuana this past January. Mr. M had been their attorney and had been successful in adjusting their legal status. They emigrated from Chile on a visitor’s visa, were able to become permanent residents and later U.S. citizens. She also had friend that despite of facing voluntary departure, Mr. M was able to get her back into the U.S. with a permanent resident visa. She truly believed Mr. M could do help me return “home” after my deportation 3 years ago.

While I was living in Los Angeles, shortly after finishing high school, I had started taking initiative to understand my legal case instead of letting my parents continue with it. I was still undergoing political asylum proceedings. During my senior year in college (in 2003) I had regular contact with the notary and she would constantly reassure me all was going well. Any doubts I had were temporarily appeased when I finally received my first work permit. I would attend appointments with asylum officers and immigration hearings which all seemed to be going as planned.

Two years later, I started to have issues with my work permit renewal. Unsatisfied with the notary’s explanation that my case was in order, I began to contact several attorneys to get a second opinion. However, none of them were able to offer an alternate legal route; there was no immigration relief I qualified for. Most of them questioned that the legal process my parents had begun would effectively adjust my immigration status. The legal consensus I received was to wait for some type of immigration reform that could benefit my case.

Then in 2008, I met Attorney#2 at an immigration training seminar and decided to schedule a consultation. Unlike previous attorneys, he had taken more time to investigate my case. Attorney#2 contacted U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and found out that my case had been closed a few years back. That explained why my work permit was not renewed. I had confirmed my suspicions; the legal process the notary and Attorney#1 managed was fraudulent. Attorney#2 speculated I most likely had a warrant and ICE could at any moment be searching for me.

I realized that I had become part of the growing number of immigrants who fall prey to attorneys and those posing as immigration specialists known in the Latino community as “notarios.”  These notarios are neither licensed to practice law nor provide legal advice, as in the case of the notary my parents hired. She seemed “more” legitimate to them because she collaborated with an attorney we would see at immigration hearings where we were represented. She also claimed to have contacts within the immigration system to expedite our case. These immigration scam practitioners became more notorious in the 1980s, targeting immigrants seeking amnesty relief but it was not until recently that federal agencies began to pay attention to this growing problem. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice, along with the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Trade Commission started efforts to crackdown on such immigration scams.*

Attorney#2 was very frank and direct, and he said that my only options were to either relocate back to Mexico or immigrate to other countries like Canada which have more flexible immigration laws, especially for high-skilled migrants. But since I was not a “high priority” immigrant, meaning that I lacked a criminal record, it was unlikely ICE would target me. I could try to buy some time and wait until immigration law changed. If you have been followed this blog, you know how that ended.

“Yes, I know. I was not expecting you to tell me anything different than what other attorneys have already told me”, I replied to Mr. M during my call as we were beginning to wrap up the phone conversation.

Mr. M had previously reviewed the paperwork on the appeal I filed after my deportation. He concluded that although I had inappropriate legal counsel, I could not re-open my case because I would need to prove that an immigration judge would have ruled in my favor if I would have had proper representation. The truth is I did not meet the requirements for neither political asylum nor cancellation of removal. Bottom line, my parents should have never been advised to file for such immigration relief which would later result in our deportation proceedings.

Mr. M continued, “However, Attorney#1 who represented you in immigration court, I know who she is and has a reputation for filing these types of cases, and she is still doing it!”

I began to feel a sudden anger. I told Mr. M that after my deportation, I filed a complaint against Attorney#1 with the California State Bar Association, but it was denied because I did not have enough evidence to establish willful misconduct of Attorney#1. It just felt wrong that individuals like me would pay the consequences for inappropriate legal counsel while these legal scammers continue on with their unscrupulous practices untouched.

I could sense Mr. M. felt sympathy for my case. He mentioned that although he could not make a final assessment on my situation with the information he had, he would make a request to immigration for my entire legal files. He was also interested in taking a look at the State Bar response on the compliant I filed.

If I could do something to get off the streets one more of these individuals, then I least I would feel that something good can come out of my deportation.

However, I suspect more like Attorney#1 will continue with their fraudulent operatives. Any upcoming immigration law changes will be seen as an opportunity for these scammers to feed a lucrative business by targeting the most vulnerable. Education and awareness are the only tools we have available to help immigrants navigate through the complicated immigration system without falling prey to fraud.

* To read more on recent news on Notario and immigration fraud, the American Bar Association has created media reference list.

Compromise on ‘Pathway to Citizenship’ is Short of True Reform

Featured Opinion Blog in Latina Lista

By Nancy Landa

We are only weeks away from legislation been introduced to formalize the national conversation on solutions to the immigration issue the U.S. has been facing unaddressed in this manner since the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986.

Although we are seeing some Republicans now forcibly crossing the isle to support some type of immigration bill, it seems the debate is now focusing on whether a pathway to citizenship will be part of the reform package. Some reform advocates and media experts are pressing Democrats to take off the negotiation table a pathway to citizenship if it is the only way to strike a deal with Republicans on immigration reform that could potentially provide legal status to the over 11 million undocumented passport

In a recent opinion piece, NBC columnist Esther Cepeda is asking immigration activists to stop demanding pathway to citizenship, not seeing major issues if immigrants face long waits for citizenship, or perhaps not been eligible for citizenship at all.  One of her main arguments is that there is no major difference in the benefits and protections “legal residents” and citizens receive except for the right to vote.

Such statement oversimplifies the challenges that immigrants are increasingly facing in maintaining legal status which is no longer permanent with recent law changes. Permanent residents can lose their legal status in light of an expanded aggravated felony policy the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has implemented. A non-criminal offense such as drug possession (as opposed to drug trafficking) can initiate deportation proceedings of legal permanent residents. This is an issue well documented by Amnesty International USA which also became very palpable to me during my own deportation proceeding.  I met many detainees who in large part had been permanents residents and were facing many months of detention, were very likely to lose their permanent residency and to be deported. Additionally, many of them were not high-priority criminals posing a threat to national security as DHS claims to be targeting.

I understand that in politics both sides have to give in to reach a middle ground. But lets first begin by understanding how this debate has been positioned. Republicans are trying to frame pathway to citizenship as one of the extreme solution to immigration reform, and it seems many are falling into that trap. The New York Times Editorial said it best in a recent opinion referring to their take of the House Republicans during recent hearing debates: “The false middle ground [they] seemed to be seeking was limbo: legal status without hope of citizenship. Or, second-class noncitizens.”

It is true that not all permanent residents will apply for citizenship. To begin with, the cost of applying for citizenship, now at close to $600, will be the first barrier to overcome for many that are struggling financially. Secondly, there are all the other requirements like years of residency, basic knowledge of English and US government and history etc. which will further reduce the number of citizenship applicants. However, this does not mean we should assume immigrants do not want to become citizens. Therefore, why use this logic to conclude that citizenship is an optional amenity to the immigration reform package? Immigrants should have the option to decide if they want to become citizens rather than having the immigration system decide for them.

The immigrant community has compromised enough and this point should be a non-negotiable for those that believe in true comprehensive immigration reform. And if you ask me, I think we have already paid a stiff price with over 1 million immigrants deported under President Obama who will not be able to benefit from any reform legislation.

Nancy Landa is a deported honors graduate and former student President of California State University, Northridge (CSUN). Nancy resides in Tijuana since her deportation in 2009 and has shared her story to highlight the need for comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. You can follow Nancy on Facebook and Twitter or her blog at

Updated: 15 Feb 2013