Illegal Immigration Isn't an 'Invasion'

Overheated rhetoric is a ploy to treat migrants like enemy combatants.


When ideologues on the left and the right want to make a case for why the government really needs to crack down on something, they rhetorically elevate the offense. One example from the left is the desire to impose speech codes or hate speech laws. "Words are violence," some argue. After all, being rude can cause "stress" or "harm," just like wielding a knife or gun.

The same lame bombast also infects the right. "It is an invasion, that's not an overstatement," Fox News host Tucker Carlson told his viewers last month, referring to illegal migration. The purpose of these rhetorical maneuvers is clear. If words are violence, then we should treat insults like assaults. If illegal migration is an invasion, border crossers should be treated like an enemy in a war.

I don't care much for politically correct language. I avoid the euphemism treadmill. Whether you call people who violate immigration law "illegal aliens," "undocumented noncitizens," or "unauthorized immigrants" doesn't make much difference to me (or the law). But illegal migration is not an invasion any more than words are violence. The problem is the inaccuracy, not the politics.

The Constitution requires the federal government to protect against an "invasion"—what every court that has reviewed the question has interpreted to mean an "armed hostility from another political entity." James Madison labeled invasion a "foreign hostility" or attack by one state on another, and the Constitutional Convention debates connected the power to repel invasions with the power to raise armies. All the widely used English dictionaries from the Founding confirm this understanding, and of course, the other uses of invasion in the Constitution have the same meaning.

Using the word invasion as a substitute for illegal migration is both offensive to anyone who's lived through a real one and insulting to the intelligence of everyone else. If you can't tell the difference between 100,000 Germans arriving in Paris at the head of an army in 1940, and 100,000 Germans arriving in Paris today as tourists, it's time to crack open a history book, not opine on immigration policy. Perhaps because they know the comparison to an invasion is so weak, nativists like former President Donald Trump also promulgate the risible conspiracy theory that foreign governments are "sending" the immigrants here.

Migration across the border may involve violations of U.S. laws, but the comparison to an invasion ends there. Border crossers aren't coming to overthrow the government or take over the Capitol (unlike a few nativists this year). Indeed, it's the U.S. government that is attempting to assail the migrants, not the other way around. People crossing the border actively try to avoid conflict with U.S. authorities either by 1) evading detection and peacefully moving to their destinations, or 2) intentionally seeking out U.S. agents to submit to the government's legal procedures. Reporting from the frontlines of this supposed conquest, The Wall Street Journal described how some invaders were inquiring for directions to the closest "immigration office."

An "invasion" isn't just an overstatement. It's a completely unserious attempt to demand extraordinary, military-style measures to stop completely mundane actions like walking around a closed port of entry to file asylum paperwork or violating international labor market regulations in order to fill one of the 10 million job openings in this country. But the goal of this nativist language warfare is nothing less than the removal of immigrant rights. "We cannot allow all of these people to invade our country," Trump tweeted in 2018. "When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came."

The right labels leftists who shut down speech "snowflakes" because they cannot handle hearing certain words or ideas. But hysterically shouting "invasion" every time people seek safety or opportunity in this country reveals a similar fragility. Carlson apparently feels so threatened by these farmhands and families that he demands that they be met with military force. Citing the minuscule percentage of migrants who are actually violent criminals as a reason to treat them all as invaders doesn't change the absurdity of the argument—it demonstrates it.

But Carlson and Trump are not just wrong; they have it backward. Migration is the exact opposite of an invasion. Nearly all these so-called invaders are coming to serve Americans. This supposed invasion will contribute to the strength and prosperity of the United States, not undermine it. This isn't Santa Anna's soldiers crossing the Rio Grande. It's four kids with their mom reuniting with their dad at a farm outside of Atlanta. They're not coming to blow us up or take our stuff—they're coming to work with us, work for us, and buy our products. They want to be us, not conquer us. And that's the most important point: A crackdown on migration does not vindicate the rights of Americans to be free from foreign attackers. Rather, it is a violation of our rights to associate, contract, and trade with peaceful people born in other countries.

The fact that these actions are so often illegal is lamentable. But Congress could pass a law tomorrow to legalize migration (as it in fact did for the first century of American history). The illegal part of illegal immigration is a problem easily solved by Congress. It does not warrant the suspension of habeas corpus or calling up militias to shoot the "invaders."

Real invasions are met with violence, and so it's unsurprising to see this language repeated by a variety of different nativists who have gone on to commit terrorist attacks. To reject these attacks—as assuredly nearly all nativists do—is to reject the premise on which they were based. There is no invasion. It's just an overheated political analogy in pursuit of a policy outcome—if only the wielders of the word would admit that. If nativists have a good argument to make against liberalized immigration, let them make that argument instead of mangling the English language.