Remember the Takata airbag scandal? The company’s actions – though they took lives – were not criminal. Takata’s offenses were civil. Nobody went to jail. But the company was fined a billion dollars.

On the other end of the civil violation spectrum – we could use The Simpsons as an example. Remember watching the episode where Homer’s car is in New York City? When he finds it the windshield is covered in parking tickets. Those are civil violations too.

By the way.  Screaming out of control and being too noisy in New York City  – as in many Texas cities – is also a civil violation. Remodeling your house without a permit is a violation. So is having a garage sale without the appropriate permit. Have you ever been guilty of any of these? Most of us have – sometimes without even knowing.

You know what else is a civil violation?

Overstaying your visa.

So if overstaying a visa is a civil violation why are visa overstayers often called ‘illegals?” What is their crime?

“The truth is that the population of immigrants who are in undocumented status in the United States is almost about half and half. There’s a split between people who violated a visa and people who entered the country illegally,” says immigration expert Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch.

In other words half of the unauthorized immigrant population is guilty of committing a civil violation – akin to getting a parking ticket. While the other half could be guilty of a crime.

“An individual who enters the country without status could theoretically be charged for a criminal offense under 8 United States Code 1325 – which essentially is illegal entry,” she says.

Lincoln-Goldfinch says “theoretically” because to be guilty of a crime a person must stand trial and be found guilty.

Not so for civil violations.

If you get a parking ticket as Homer Simpson did, there’s no need for an attorney, no need for a trial – you can simply take responsibility and pay the fine.

If some unauthorized immigrants have violated civil law while others may have committed a crime – why are they treated equally? Why are both often treated as criminals? Jennifer Laurin, a civil law expert who teaches law at the University of Texas at Austin sys they shouldn’t be.

“The fact is – as a legal matter – none of these individuals have been determined to be criminals simply by virtue of their immigration status. They haven’t been afforded any of the Constitutional protections that we afford criminals. We haven’t enacted the laws that govern their immigration status with the level of precision that we require of criminal laws – not only are they not technically criminals but they haven’t enjoyed the kind of protections that our Constitution requires in terms of preserving the rights of individuals before they are adjudicated criminals,” Laurin says.

For every other action the legal demarcation between civil and criminal is very clear. So are the consequences. But when it comes to immigration it’s all a blur.

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