As a border resident who was reared within sight of our southern border (literally and not in the Sarah Palin sense of "seeing Russia"), I have long had feelings and concerns about immigration issues and policy.
One particularly hot topic is the term "illegal alien". Immigration rights advocates would rather that phrase not being used, preferring "undocumented immigrant", and often repeating the statement that people can't be illegal and the more refined point that not all violations of immigration law are criminal. Some applaud the advocates and some might call them quibblers.
What's at issue here are distinctions and subtleties in immigration law and policy that don't come through in political sound bites.
To simplify things quite a lot, someone who knowingly and willfully crosses the border by evading border officers or by using fraudulent documents is definitely breaking the law. But, someone who comes into the USA with a valid visa or border crossing card that subsequently expires is guilty only of a "status violation" and is subject to only a civil proceeding and likely deportation.
It can be hard to sort out the unfortunates whose intentions were entirely lawful, but who got caught up in the complexities, contradictions, expense, and difficulty of our immigration laws, from those whose intentions were less honorable, or from those who were simply careless, who took a chance on not getting caught, who got caught with a DUI/DWI or similar violations, or who never took an opportunity to acquire regular status when they had a chance.
Some immigration advocates seem to try to paint all status violators as entirely innocent, and would have us believe that they're all entirely innocent and blameless, and that every one of them is a good, moral, hard-working person whose presence strengthens our nation by doing work that natives eschew. And, on the other side of the immigration debate border, are anti-immigrants, nativists, xenophobes, and protectionists who believe that every violator is lazy or evil, filled with criminal intent, and is part of a sinister plot to destabilize and undermine the country. Wouldn't it be shocking if not all immigrants were the same and that neither extreme was always right?
Also, intentions are hard to prove or disprove and often the system doesn't bother to try. So, the relatively innocent and guilty may be lumped together and simply deported, without bothering to prosecute first-time offenders who may have in fact deliberately violated the law. Some immigration advocates might try to paint all status violators who face deportation as relative innocents, yet the brutal fact is that among them are some people who intended to overstay their visas, and others who succeeded in evading border officers in their initial crossing.
Public opinion might be a bit more forgiving of immigration supporters if some supporters didn't push the presumed innocence angle too hard and instead acknowledged that many violators didn't have purely innocent intent... even if many individuals were never convicted of a crime and instead faced only civil deportation. Individuals may be given the presumption of innocence of deliberate lawbreaking by our officials, but public opinion can be much harsher to immigration violators as a collective.
Repeat violators are considered to be guilty of a much more serious crime under our laws than first-time violators. And, then, there are the out-and-out criminals; coyotes who smuggle people into the country, narco-traficantes who smuggle drugs and weapons, and other criminals.
Some critics of the term "undocumented immigrant" might accept use of the term for relatively innocent status violators who have tried to comply with the law, but many would be very angry at those who would apply the phrase to those immigrants who deliberately evaded border officers or used fraudulent documents. "Lawbreaker" is about as kind or gentle of a term as can be expected for immigration foes to apply to those latter.
In any case, the various immigrants who violate the law are quite a variety of people to lump into one category.
The best nomenclature I can come up with is a sort of continuum or spectrum...
(1) innocent status violations -- people who crossed legally whose permission (visa, border card) expired despite good intentions and attempts to comply with the rules.
(2) foolish or desperate violations -- people not currently legally present who got caught with a DUI/DWI, didn't regularize their status when they had a chance, etc., got bad advice, didn't pay close attention to the rules, took a chance on the rules not being enforced, couldn't afford immigration counseling, etc.
(3) illegal immigration -- people who knowingly evaded border officers or used altered or fraudulent documents
(4) criminal aliens -- those who crossed illegally in the commission or furtherance of a crime; coyotes, narcos, etc.
Not really in these categories are children -- too often the victims of families divided and torn apart.
It seems obvious to me -- but may not be to others -- that our country's response should not take any sort of one-size-fits-all approach.
(1) I believe that people caught up in number one deserve some leniency and in particular some help in complying with our laws. Certainly their record in the community, family ties, good behavior, and attempts to comply with the law should count for much.
(2) This is a more difficult category, since many of these people brought their situations upon themselves, whether through ignorance, desperation, poverty, or carelessness. There must be consequences, and legal residents and citizens shouldn't have a legitimate reason to believe that immigration violators are being given special, unearned privileges. Still, extenuating circumstances should get some consideration, and these people should be treated in a humane and respectful manner. And, I think that a rigorous, but do-able process could be provided to give those who are willing to work hard for it a chance to get back on track for regular status.
(3) Those who deliberately broke the law deserve humane treatment, but no special privileges. There have to be consequences severe enough to deter repeated lawbreaking and to meet the country's goal of protecting its borders. These people definitely need to go to the back of the line; perhaps they might eventually get some sort of second chance but it would not come quickly or easily.
(4) Lock these people away in a strict prison for a very long time. Perhaps the super-strict anti-immigrant types would enjoy putting them to work on a chain gang ... building walls or such.
Or maybe, given the confusion and uncertainty, complicated laws and inconsistent policies, and mixed feelings we have as a nation, maybe what we need is not so much a border wall, but rather a gigantic border maze. Somehow, that fits.