Department of Unhelpful Immigration Metaphors (2): 'Out of the Shadows'

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on October 3, 2010

Second in popularity only to "the system is broken" among unhelpful immigration metaphors is the hackneyed meme of helping illegal immigrants come "out of the shadows."

President Obama promises that his proposals will "Bring People Out of the Shadows." An immigration groups advocating a "pathway to citizenship," another rhetorical favorite, sponsored a national "Coming Out of the Shadows" week. ABC news presented a special entitled "Out of the Shadows" that "speaks to ten undocumented immigrants and families at the center of the U.S. immigration debate, examining who they are, why they came to the U.S. and what their lives here mean for America's future."

But what does "out of the shadows" really mean?

At one level of meaning, it is a dark metaphor. Shadow is that point between light and dark with the implication that it owes more to the latter than the former. Honest and straightforward people live their lives in full view (at least in theory according to this understanding of the shadow metaphor), while those with something to hide furtively live their lives on the margins in the shadows, unseen by those living their real lives honestly and above ground.

But advocates of illegal immigrants do not subscribe to this view. Indeed their view is quite the opposite.

What's most interesting about this metaphor is the emotional jiu jitsu that terms tries to accomplish.

To fully understand what's being attempted here, successfully to some degree, it pays to keep focused on the fact that illegal immigrants come here by choice. They know in advance they are going to overstay their visas. They know in advance they are going to climb the fence, transverse the desert, or pay a "coyote" to get them here.

Those who are most likely to call for bringing illegal immigrants "out of the shadows" are most likely to believe that the fault lies with those who want to stop illegal immigration rather than with those make a conscious decision to come here and live in violation of our immigration laws.

One legalization advocate writes "Already forced to live, and sometimes die, in the shadows, they could have been driven further underground by the threat of draconian measures." (emphasis added)

Notice the words "already forced to live." Clearly the illegal immigrants being discussed did not force themselves to live in the shadows; rather it was something done to them.

By whom? By us of course. By all those Americans who have expressed the strong preference for its government to enforce its legally arrived at immigration laws. And also now by governments that have ever so slowly and reluctantly begun to response to those voices.

This advocate's position is typical. Nowhere is there any acknowledgment that in living and working here in violation of American immigration laws, the shadow of worry that must be endured is of the illegal immigrant's own making.

The idea of "living in the shadows" is of course is mostly ridiculous. Illegal immigrants live in the very same communities that we do. They live on our streets, buy food in our supermarkets, send their children to American schools, buy gas for their cars and many of them live with partners, families, or friends. There is no obvious feature that distinguishes them. If they live "in the shadows," that does not describe a physical reality, but a psychological one.

There is of course one sense in which illegal immigrants live in the shadows. They live with guilty knowledge, what in law is referred to as scienter: "Having the requisite knowledge of the wrongness/illegality of an act or conduct; guilty knowledge; knowing the impropriety/illegality associated with doing certain acts."

An illegal's friends and neighbors may have no idea of his status, or if they know, are not particularly exercised about it, but the illegal knows his status. And in that guilty knowledge lies the worry that he or she will be found out.

Note that this guilty knowledge does not imply a sense of guilt that would reflect an acknowledgment that you have done something wrong and should not keep doing it. Rather the feeling is the fear that this secret aspect of your life will be exposed that you and those who depend on you will pay the price.

In that sense, some illegal immigrants live with some fear that they might be caught, but the reality is that chance is rather small. If you are part of a gathering of day laborers you might stand out, but very few illegal immigrants are day laborers. If you have overstayed a visa, the government has no way of knowing. If you've crossed the southern border successfully, the chances of being apprehended and deported, while rising, are still very small.

The reality is that most illegal immigrants live above ground and in the light of normal existence for the most part. So for the most part, the phase living in the shadows is presented as a metaphor when it is more realistically thought of as hyperbole. Whatever shadows exist are primarily the worries brought about by guilty knowledge. And to repeat a key point: Illegal immigrants are here by choice. They have made the commitment to endure the burdens of doing so, including being willing to take on their guilty knowledge and the worries it might bring.

One solution is to make illegal immigrants legal thus bring them "out of the shadows." Another is to ask what their responsibilities are for the position they find themselves in and why having consciously and with advanced planning violated our laws, we have an obligation to right their wrongs.