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Bob Richter: We call them 'undocumented' while Congress drags its feet

Web Posted: 04/23/2006 12:00 AM CDT

San Antonio Express-News

George Sullivan was angry. "When are you going to start printing the truth?" he shouted into my Express-News voice mail, referencing the story atop Page 1 last Thursday, "Immigrant roundup hits state."

"They're not migrant workers. They're illegal immigrants, in this country illegally. Get your facts straight and quit pussyfootin' around."

Probably a bigoted Irishman who wished America had slammed the door after his ancestors arrived, I thought. Can't wait to talk to him.

When I did, though, I found my impression was wrong. Sullivan's wife is Hispanic. His folks emigrated from Poland. And while his name is Irish, it's only because a lazy bureaucrat couldn't spell Solowiej.

"I'm not against immigrants," he told me. "I feel for the families. I don't want to put troops on the border. I just want (immigrants) to come in legally, like my parents did."

Sullivan, 72, doesn't like to see photos in the Express-News of protesters waving Mexican flags and thinks the newspaper suffers from political correctness, using the term "undocumented" instead of "illegal."

I suspect many people agree.

The U.S. Senate this week will no doubt rekindle the flames as it resumes debate on rewriting U.S. immigration law. Senators have no consensus yet, but their House colleagues want to punish people who enter the country illegally as well as people who protect them.

San Antonio Archbishop José Gomez told a rally in Milam Park on April 10 his church "cannot endorse a law that makes criminals of an estimated 11 to 12 million people." The statement irked law-abiding citizens such as R.A. Platt of Universal City, who said in a letter to the editor:

"No individual or group of individuals has the right to defy the nation's laws and sanction the illegal entry of foreign nationals into this country, and that includes Gomez, his church and any other religious order, sect or social organization that may be considering this same course of action."

Clearly, common ground is hard to find. One reason for the fury is U.S. immigration "law" is pretty much a joke. As Sullivan said, there's already a law, but, as the archbishop acknowledged, millions ignore it. That's not right, but it's reality.

The Express-News report Sullivan objected to covered a raid on a local business that hired undocumented workers. Such raids are rare although it's common knowledge many South Texas businesses and individuals flout the law by hiring undocumenteds.

The San Antonio Express-News once used terms such as "illegal immigrant" or "illegal alien," but altered its style years ago to reflect the reality. For the record, here's today's style:

"Illegal — Since many people find it objectionable, don't use this word as a noun or adjective in reference to individuals. Instead, if the country of origin of a person who is in another nation illegally isn't known, use such terms as undocumented immigrant or, if he or she has a job, undocumented worker. It is acceptable, however, to use the term illegal immigration."

As long as there is abject poverty in the Third World, and as long as America is seen as a beacon for the downtrodden, people will come here, legally or illegally. Many try and fail every day, and try again. We can no more halt the flow of poor folks seeking a better life than we can stop the Mississippi River from flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

Sure, other nations are stricter about immigration — Mexico, for example — but most nations don't have throngs knocking on their door.

Instead of expensively and ineffectively trying to keep them out, or winking at an undocumented underclass working in an underground economy, Congress should craft a process that ensures people who enter this country to work have legal status, are protected by U.S. labor laws, and that they and their employers are taxed for benefits they receive here.

As long as the federal government is mealy-mouthed about immigration policy — "pussyfootin' in George Sullivan's lexicon — Express-News style for the scofflaws who ignore those laws reflects that reality. If something is truly illegal, the government should truly try to stop it.

Bob Richter is Express-News public editor. His opinions are his own. To reach him, call (210) 250-3264 or e-mail