René Flores is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, and a notice in this morning’s mail informs me that she will deliver a lecture at this university next Tuesday evening. I’m afraid I will not be among those who will be edified by Dr. Flores, since on Tuesday evenings I either wash my hair or sort my socks. But even if I were free, I would not be tempted to take a place at Dr. Flores’ feet, because I already know the answer to the question that burns so hotly in the title of her lecture.
“Who is ‘Illegal’?”
The answer is, of course, no one!
Since this lecture is part of the Latinix Lecture Policy Issues Series, and Dr. Flores’ expenses will be covered by The Carlos J. Cantu Hispanic Education and Opportunity Endowment, you will not be surprised to learn that the illegality in question is the illegality of illegal immigration. Now I freely admit that persons guilty of immigrating illegally are often referred to as illegal immigrants, and even as “illegals,” but everyone (except, perhaps, Dr. Flores) understands that the illegality lies in what these immigrants have done and not in who they are.
I have never heard a man argue that an illegal immigrant is ontologically illegal, or that he would be illegal “in all possible worlds,” or that he would continue to be illegal if he returned to his own country. What I have heard men say, and I think quite reasonably, that the illegal immigrant’s unquestionable right to be does not entail his right to be here.
But what really caught my eye was Dr. Flores’ subtitle, “The Social Construction of Undocumented Status.” Not for the first time, I found myself wondering why intelligent people think that I will concede that they have scored a point when they observe that something or other is a “social construction.”
Do I really look that stupid?
When we call something a “social construction,” we are simply using inelegant language to say that it is a convention. A convention is simply “how things have come to be done,” and, among humans, how things have come to be done is almost always more or less artificial (i.e. a “construction”). It is conventional for men to dwell in houses, for instance, and to sleep in beds and go about in clothes. Doing things in this way is not a necessity of human existence, and some men have done otherwise, but because a great many people have found these ways highly convenient, they have become conventions (or “social constructions,” if you insist).
That there should be states, and that these states should have borders, and that persons should obtain permission before crossing these boundaries—these are all, obviously, conventions or “social constructions.” No cat has ever recognized the existence of a state, or the presence of a boundary, or the need to obtain permission before crossing over to the other side. Nor, I should add, has any savage. Man did not find the world furnished with these things as it was furnished with rivers, rocks and sky. Man made them. They are manmade. And once man made them, he retained them because he found them just as convenient as he found houses, beds and clothes.
People who make a lot of noise about “social constructions” are swindlers, although not for the reasons that are often supposed. It is not because the things they call “social constructions” are not “social constructions,” but because they are “social constructions” and nothing whatever follows from this fact. Society obviously constructed the category of “undocumented” when legislators wrote the laws that define citizenship and limit the visitation rights of foreigners. It was by likewise writing the relevant laws that society “constructed” the categories of murderer, jaywalker, embezzler, and child molester.
But nothing follows from this. The fact that society could deconstruct jaywalking by repealing the laws against jaywalking does not in any way indicate that society ought to deconstruct jaywalking. No more than the fact that I could deconstruct my bed with an ax indicates that I ought to deconstruct my bed.