The nomenclature for illegal immigrants page on this site has a summary of the major terminological battles about the labeling of people who cross borders illegally or overstay their visas. Restrictionists prefer to use the term “illegal alien” which is sometimes shortened to “illegal.” Among the criticisms that have been raised regarding this term is that, even if you care a lot about the legal versus illegal distinction and are unimpressed by the moral and practical counter-arguments, it is still inaccurate to call a person an “illegal” because illegality refers to an action rather than to a person. The argument is made, for instance, in this article on Diversity Inc.
Sophisticated restrictionists would no doubt counter that, obviously, discerning thinkers on the issue can understand the difference between illegal presence in a particular country and being an illegal person. Thus, when language change advocates argue against the use of the word “illegal” they are underestimating the intellectual sophistication of the people using these terms. This may well be the case, but I find at least one piece of evidence that points in the other direction: the use of the term “job thieves” for those illegal immigrants who find jobs.
I first encountered the term in a fascinating and illuminative piece by the courageous anti-immigration activist Brenda Walker for VDARE titled Sign Of “Improved Economy”—Media Happily Proclaim Illegal Mexicans Are Coming Again. (Walker is an outspoken critic of murders and other crimes committed by illegal immigrants and maintains a website here that sheds light on this important issue. While I’m sympathetic to criticism of violent and property crime, and admire Walker’s courage in raising this issue, I’m more skeptical of her singling out immigrants, particularly considering that the statistics suggest that she could better achieve her noble goal of reducing crime by broadening her focus to include crimes by US natives. But that’s a minor quibble).
In her piece, Walker uses two interesting terms for illegal immigrants that I hadn’t encountered in the past: “pests” and “job thieves.” I was naturally curious about the extent to which this terminology was unique to Walker. Turning to Google, I discovered that “pest” as a synonym for illegal immigrant was quite rare. In fact, the only other use of this metaphor I could find was a Yahoo! Answers question. I will therefore refrain from critiquing this choice of terminology, because I share Bryan Caplan’s rule of thumb:
As a rule, I do not respond to positions that are neither plausible nor popular.
However, “job thieves” seems to be a relatively popular description of illegal immigrants, so it would be incumbent upon me to respond to this choice of terminology. A quick Google search reveals many hits for “illegal immigrants” “job thieves” and a cursory glance suggests that about half these hits are written by people supportive, rather than critical, of the term. Walker has used the term in previous writings such as here, here, and here. Other examples revealed from quick searching include a letter from a VDARE reader, a blog tag titled “job thieves” on a fascinating pro-deportation blog, and a blog post by James Fulford critiquing a decision to grant work permits to illegal immigrants. I’m linking to all of these just to make clear that my critique of the “job thief” terminology is not merely about knocking down a straw man argument.
How might one evaluate the “job thief” claim? One could look at the general economic theory regarding the effect of immigration on native employment or wages. One could look at US-specific data and discussion if the restrictionists are making arguments from the US perspective. One might critique the claims of restrictionists about how immigrants are taking US jobs. Here, I try to do something different. I argue that even if restrictionists are right that illegal immigration is morally wrong, and that immigrants taking up jobs deprives natives of jobs, the term “job thief” is still inaccurate and inappropriate.
Consider the following analogy. Suppose a shopping mall closes down at 9 PM every day. You arrive at the mall at 9:15 PM, and discover that although the mall is closed, you can enter the building. One of the shops in the mall is in the process of closing down, but you walk in and the sales clerk agrees to sell you a loaf of bread. Does this make you a “bread thief?” You entered without, even against authorization. You broke the “law” of the shopping mall and the individual shop. Yet, the specific purchase decision you made was made consensually between you and the sales clerk, who, presumably, represents the interests of the shop.
We can push this analogy a little further. Suppose the next day, the shop runs out of loaves of bread of the brand you had purchased. And at least one person who was hoping to buy the bread that day is unable to buy it because of you — at least, unable to buy it until the next shipment of bread arrives. In a very real sense, you broke a law — the posted hours of the shopping mall and of the shop — and deprived a law-abiding customer of his bread. Would this make you a bread thief?
I would argue against it. Perhaps entering the shopping mall and the shop when it was supposed to be closed makes you (presumptively) a trespasser. But being a trespasser is a very different crime than being a thief. Theft involves using force, fraud, or secrecy to take something that belongs to another person (or entity) against that person’s (or entity’s) will. You do not fit the definition of a thief here. The fact that you deprived a future customer of his/her bread does not mean you stole the bread from that customer, because that bread didn’t “belong” to the future customer until he/she actually purchased it.
The analogy with illegal immigration is clear. Illegal immigrants violate the posted laws of the United States regarding entry. But as long as their actual employment contracts are consensual decisions between them and their employers, they are not stealing jobs. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the designation “job thief” being applied to anybody except perhaps somebody who points a gun at a prospective employer and says, “Hire me, or I’ll kill you!” To my knowledge, this phenomenon is relatively rare among illegal immigrants and in the human population at large, though I would be glad if anybody could point me to evidence suggesting otherwise.
The tendency of many people to use “job thieves” seems to me to lend credence to the view mentioned at the beginning of this blog post: that calling illegal immigrants “illegals” is dehumanizing because it labels the person, rather than the specific action, illegal. This taints all the person’s actions, even those unrelated to border-crossing, with the stain of illegality. I contend that this might be part of the explanation for the attractiveness of the “job thief” terminology for illegal immigrants who find gainful employment.
I look forward to critiques of my position from restrictionists and others who support the “job thieves” terminology, or the use of the noun form of “illegal” to describe illegal immigrants.