Guest Opinion: Untangling the Immigration Debate

Max Wagner '19
Guest Columnist

In the last month there has been a lot of talk about “comprehensive immigration reform” and the category of immigrants commonly called “DREAMers.” President Trump unveiled his immigration reform plan, which is extremely generous.1 During the same timeframe, the Democrats have shut down the government demanding a “clean DACA Bill.” Unless you study politics and are actively engaged in the discussion on a daily basis, a lot of these policy proposals, acronyms, and euphemisms can get confusing. It is my hope to be able to untangle some of this confusion. Because the length limitations inherent in a school newspaper, this will be the first part of what I hope to be a several-part series looking at this confusing issue. Part one will focus on three terms which have gained prominence recently, discussing their origins and how they are being used to obfuscate the issue. These words will be “undocumented immigrant,” “DREAMer,” and “chain(ed) migration.”

The first term, “undocumented immigrant,” is a term that has been contested for at least a decade. This is the term put forward by the left for those in the country illegally. The real debate is whether the adjective that accompanies immigrant should be “illegal” or “undocumented.” The difference here is not in meaning, but rather implication. The word “illegal” denotes that the person being described has, in some way, broken the law. In this context, the law or laws being broken are the United States federal immigration laws. While referring to “illegal immigrants” has the unfortunate effect of being sometimes being shortened to merely “illegals” (sometimes out of convenience, sometimes out of malice), it is the more accurate term. What is more, the purpose of this euphemistic change from “illegal” to “undocumented” is to make it seem more acceptable for the government to grant such immigrants legal status, regardless of the breaking of our nation’s laws. The change to “undocumented” raises the question: why not just give them documents? In attempting to change the term, advocates are trying to blur the lines of the debate. For this series, the term I will be using is the more accurate, “illegal immigrant.”

The next term is “DREAMer.” This term comes from the anagram for the 2001 proposed legislation, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act. The term “DREAMer” refers to a specific subset of illegal immigrants, those who arrived in the United States when they were children. Those eligible for relief under this act had to meet certain requirements, including age and clean criminal background checks. This bill never passed, and has been proposed in various forms for the last seventeen years or more. This group of illegal immigrants came to prominence with the signing of President Obama’s executive order in 2012, “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” or DACA, which is believed by some scholars to be unconstitutional. While the DREAMers are illegal immigrants, there has long been an understanding that there is a distinction between those who willfully violated the American immigration laws and those who were brought over as children. This is a distinction I agree with. DREAMers did not choose to come here, in most circumstances. They were brought here through little or no fault of their own, and it makes sense that a separate solution for them should be discussed.

It is important, when going through different policy proposals, to get an accurate idea of who this group includes. Hardliners on both sides exaggerate to make their point. The first thing to note is that a majority of the DREAMers were brought over as teenagers. This is still a difficult time to exercise autonomy in deciding where you live, but it is not the picture many on the far left try to paint—of infants being brought over before they can walk or talk. Here, they still lacked significant agency, but the claim that this is the only nation they have known is false. In order to find the best solution, we have to be honest about the experiences of members of this group. 

The next point that should be discussed is the literacy and English fluency of the DREAMers. While there are DREAMers who succeed in the U.S., the fact is many of the DREAMers lack fluency in English. According to one study, as many as 24 percent of DREAMers are functionally illiterate, with 46 percent having only “basic” English skills. To compound this, according to the same source, only 49 percent of DREAMers have a high school diploma, despite a majority of them being adults. Finally, we hear a lot about the DREAMers in the military. This is true; there are some DREAMers in the military. The decision to serve a nation of which you are not a citizen and has made no promise of citizenship is incredibly commendable and patriotic. In fact, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said he will personally defend all serving DACA recipients from deportation if no deal is reached—an admirable statement defending admirable men and women who have chosen to serve. However, the number of DREAMers enlisted in the U.S. military is roughly 900. That is 0.13 percent. This is not to diminish the incredible sacrifice and service of those 900, who should have special consideration in these discussions, it is important to know this is a relatively small number of DREAMers. While there has to be some discussion about this particular group of illegal immigrants, it is important to define who they are so we can make correct decisions.

The final term I want to discuss is “chain(ed) migration.” As you may notice, there are odd parentheses in this term. That is because we are currently in the middle of an attempted shift in the use of this term. Dating back decades, this term was used to describe the immigration situation we have now, where once immigrants are issued a green card, they can apply to bring members of their family over. This is a descriptive term. As one person is approved and arrived in the United States, successive applications create a “chain” of their family members who may immigrate to the country as well. Unfortunately, the Democrats have begun to say the term is racist. This began with Senator Dick Durbin, who claimed it reminds African-Americans of the chains slaves wore when they were brought from Africa to the United States. This is an absurd argument given that chain migration has no relation to slavery or physical chains at all, nor is the term in anyway racially motivated. We are currently in the middle of an attempted shift from “chain migration” to “chained migration.” This shift is an attempt to further call back to the slave trade and paint the term as one of racial animus. This is an insidious attempt to try and reframe the debate from terms that have been used for decades to terms friendlier to the policy proposals of the left. As discussed before, this term in no way references race or ethnicity in any way. It is a descriptive term that has been used for over seventy years. 

As we move forward through this series, there are three points to remember: (1) The attempted change from “illegal immigrant” to “undocumented immigrant” is subtle and designed to favor a solution before the discussion occurs; (2) DREAMers are a special subgroup of illegal immigrants who are not entirely what the left is portraying them to be; and (3) the term “chain migration” is not a racist term, no matter how much Democrats want it to be, nor is it the insidious “chained migration.” It is merely a description of how the immigration provision works. 


1 This plan would provide a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million DREAMers, and significant numbers of their parents. 


3 Id.

4 Id.

5 Mattis’ Statement:

6 As noted by Jonah Goldberg, this term has been used in scholarly papers going back to 1943

7 Id.