CHICAGO -- When people get passionate, they get sloppy.
This has always been my beef with immigration activists, whether it's the throw-open-the-borders lobby or the seal-the-country-and-hide-your-women-and-children nativists. In their zeal to prove that theirs is the best solution for our country's future, they make the mistake of overgeneralizing the term "immigrant."
In an environment where the illegal immigrant witch hunt is directly contributing to harassment and discrimination against anyone with a foreign accent or the indescribable look of not being a U.S.-born citizen, it's no wonder that some activists -- out of frustration at what has in many ways become an anti-Hispanic movement -- sometimes err on the side of overglorifying immigrants. But their good intentions are as dangerous as the desire of those who seek to paint all immigrants as a threat.
I was reminded of this on the Fourth of July when I started seeing social media postings praising President Obama's White House naturalization ceremony, while implying that the 25 active-duty service members who were sworn in were not only noncitizens but also illegal immigrants.
Sure, it's powerful and inspiring to hear the president pay tribute to immigrants' contributions to this country even as so many others ignore their work while pressuring people to self-deport. But a few parts of the Hispanic blogosphere got carried away and saw the ceremony as a vindication of good, hardworking and patriotic illegal immigrants.
Now, I'm not here to further knock down the illegal immigrant population, but rather to point out the hazards of buying into blanket generalizations about immigrants, even those that paint them in a flattering light.
First, let's not unnecessarily cast doubt on the 25 service members from 17 countries who became citizens on Independence Day -- none of them were illegal immigrants. As many news reports about the event correctly noted, residents here illegally cannot join the military.
There is a small, though untracked, number of active duty soldiers who, despite their nonlegal status, somehow managed to get past the military's stringent background checks. They face the thorny process of trying to legalize their status, under a 1952 law that allows for such discretion, and can expect differing outcomes.
The unclear status of this group aptly illustrates the disparate nature of the umbrella term "immigrants" and how very imprecise it is to herd them into blunt categories.
"The confusion with the military aspect has been troubling these last couple of weeks because so many people get it wrong. It really shows the need for education on how immigration rules really work," said Michele Waslin, the senior policy analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Policy Center. "Immigration law is really, really complex and people think you're either legal or you're not, even though there are lots of different types of statuses."
Waslin listed for me a long list of temporary and permanent forms of being in the country legally and illegally, which sometimes overlap or morph from one to the other; everything from being in the country on work, study and vacation visas, to being in different stages of applying for a green card. Plus there are temporary protected statuses that can change on a moment's notice and various legal-limbo modes, such as the recently re-announced "deferred action" that confers a status that's neither legal nor illegal.
The problem is that blurring the lines between legal and illegal immigrants, even if only to humanize the most dehumanized population in America, brings all immigrants down instead of lifting them all up. Trust me, no one reacts more strongly to being accused of being in this country illegally than the immigrant who is not.
When well-meaning advocates equate these two groups by, for instance, using a ceremony naturalizing legal immigrant service members to imply that the military provision of the DREAM Act is therefore a great idea, it gives firmer footing to those who would use the small percentage of undocumented soldiers in the military to ban all noncitizens from joining it.
That's not an overstatement, There are always people looking to curtail the benefits that legal immigrants or U.S.-born children of immigrants are eligible for. In the 1990s, people wanted to restrict legal permanent residents from accessing welfare benefits; today it's trying to take away tax credits and tomorrow it'll be something else.
Passionate stances on illegal immigration notwithstanding, we must all be vigilant about understanding our immigrant population -- and guard against simplistic overgeneralizations.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.