Defining 'Invasion' -- A Question of Numbers?

By John Rohe
Volume 11, Number 1 (Fall 2000)
Issue theme: "America's porous borders"

If fifty foreign paratroopers stormed the United States borders to seize a valued natural resource, we would readily recognize this to be an "invasion." Would it still be considered an "invasion" if their mission was to impose a foreign language upon our schools and democratic discourse? Would it be any less invasive if 50 armed storm troopers crossed the border to take the jobs of 50 underprivileged workers? What if their formal strategy was calculated to undercut minimum wages of the poor and to undermine employment standards for the American worker?

Should the definition become blurred when millions, rather than 50, illegally pierce the nation's border?

The United States Constitution employs the word "invasion" in three places:

Article I, 8 - "The Congress shall have the Power ... To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;"

Article 1, 9 - "...The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it."

Article IV, 4 - "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion."

The Constitution does not define the word "invasion," but it brooks no compromise on one important point. Article IV, 4 promises the United States "shall" protect every State in the Union against it. This is mandatory. It is not permissive. The United States has no choice. Under this Constitutional provision, it must "protect" every State in the Union against "Invasion."

By not specifically defining "invasion," the drafters relegated future interpreters to distill meaning elsewhere. In construing our Constitution, the courts look to commonly understood usage.

According to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, the words "invade" and "invasion" originated in Middle French and Latin:

invade v. 1491, borrowed from Middle French invader to invade, and directly from Latin invadere go into, fall upon, attack, invade (in-2in + vadere go, walk). invasion n. Probably before 1439 invasioun assault or attack; borrowed from Middle French invasion, learned borrowing from Late Latin invasionem (nominative invasio) an attack, invasion, from Latin invasus, past participle of invadere invade.

The word "invade" originated in the Latin equivalent for "go into" or to "walk in." Violence and force are not necessarily contemplated by the original meaning of the word.

In a conventional text, the American Heritage Dictionary, 3d Ed., the word "invasion" is defined as follows:

1. The act of invading, esp. entrance by force.

2. A large-scale onset of something harmful.

3. An intrusion or encroachment: invasion of privacy.

The verb "invade" is defined in the same dictionary with similar ambivalence on whether violence and force is required:

1. To enter by force in order to conquer.

2. To trespass or intrude; violate.

3. To overrun or infest.

4. To enter and permeate, esp. harmfully.

The 22-volume Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, relies upon authorities from as early as the 16th century in defining "invasion." The Oxford definitions are:

1. a. The action of invading a country or territory as an enemy; an entrance or incursion with armed force; a hostile inroad.

b. fig. A harmful incursion of any kind, e.g. of the sea, of disease, moral evil, etc.

c. Path. The spreading of pathogenic microorganisms or malignant cells that are already in the body to new sites.

2. Infringement by intrusion; encroachment upon the property, rights, privacy, etc of any one. Esp. in phr. invasion of privacy.

3. Assault, attack (upon a person, etc.)

4. Ecology. The spread of plant or animal population into an area formerly free of the species concerned.

The Oxford definition relies on the word "invade." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, the word "invade" is defined as:

1. trans. To enter in a hostile manner, or with armed force; to make an inroad or hostile incursion into.

2. transf. and fig. To enter or penetrate after the manner of an invader. a. Of a physical agent. b. Of sounds, diseases, feelings, etc.

3. intr. Or absol. To make an invasion or attack. Const. on (upon, into) and with indirect pass.

4. trans. To intrude upon, infringe, encroach on, violate (property, rights, liberties, etc.).

5. To make an attack upon (a person, etc,); to set upon or assault.

6. (Latinisms): a. To enter. lit. and fig. b. to go, traverse, or accomplish (a distance). c. To rush or inter hurriedly in (a struggle, etc.).

The use of force is present in at least some of the definitions. Yet force, or even animosity, is not inherent in others. To the extent the definitions yield conflicting interpretations with respect to the element of force, the following questions might help resolve the ambiguity:

Does the definition depend on the resistance of the target nation?

If so, does force become manifest, and does an "invasion" occur, only if there is resistance at every point along a wide national border?

What if the means of force are present, but there is no resistance?

If the illegal entrant carries a gun but never finds the need to use it, does the entry qualify as a forceful invasion?

What if the illegal entrant is armed, yet strategically eludes border officials?

What if the illegal entrant is unarmed but disturbs the peace while eluding border officials?

What if the illegal entrant wields no weapons and professes to have no hostile intent but undermines national policies such as minimum wage laws, employment benefits, and tax laws?

Must the illegal entry be supported by formal action of another nation to be deemed an "invasion"?

Would 50 armed military personnel be deemed an invasion while 500,000 illegal immigrants from the same nation would not?

Definitions rest in the eye of the beholder. It might not seem invasive from the vantage of the person seeking access to cheap labor, even if the entrant is given to violence and is brandishing a firearm while crossing the border. The event becomes more invasive from the vantage of the underprivileged minority U.S. citizen being forced to compete with low wages and no employment benefits as a result of the illegal border crossing. Where we stand on the definition might depend on where we sit.

What might not seem invasive to some, strikes to the heart of the definition for others. Unless we are willing to consider the disproportionate representation of illegal aliens in U.S. prisons, the effect on U.S. jobs, labor standards, respect for our laws, the need for a common language to perpetuate a robust experiment in self governance, the welfare rolls, congestion, urban sprawl, and the depletion of national resources, then the border crossings might not seem invasive at all.

Sheer numbers are also relevant. An illegal border crossing by ten participants in a peace march might not be deemed to constitute an invasion. What if there are 100,000 marchers? One million? Two million? Would anyone refute that the illegal entry of one billion marchers constitutes an invasion? At some point the definition might depend on the number of entrants. Esoteric arguments about the definition of "invasion" could evaporate into nothing more than a squabble over numbers.

Some may see immigration as a dutiful way to alleviate population pressures in foreign lands. The annual net population gain (births minus deaths) in impoverished regions of the world is 80 million per year. If the United States were to accept this net gain for only 3 years, our population would almost double. Each and every U.S. citizen would soon recognize the imposition on our lives and resources as an invasion. Yet, by absorbing this dramatic net population gain, the congestion in impoverished and densely populated foreign lands would remain absolutely unchanged.

To perceive an "invasion" in the actions of even the peace-loving illegal alien requires us to connect the dots. By any definition, if it just doesn't feel invasive, it may not be deemed an "invasion." Perceptions will be influenced by whether there are 1,000, 100,000 or 1,000,000 illegal entrants per year. Unless a court can conveniently draw the association between an illegal border crossing and a valued aspect of the United States, it might not seem all that "invasive."

For Fresno's Hmong, the unsettled status of the cultural defense has meant that they have been held criminally liable for engaging in such traditional practices as opium smoking, polygamy, and butchering animals in their backyard.

John Haviland, an anthropologist at Reed College in Oregon who has worked with Mixteco Indian migrant workers from Mexico, notes that inadequate interpreters and cultural bigotry are problems faced by defendants from foreign cultures, but he notes that cultural defense offers little hope for redress.

What anthropologists are often asked to do is argue an exotic cultural defense and try to convince the jury that people look at the world in such a different way that it dehumanizes them, he says.

About the author

John F. Rohe is a former Peace Corps volunterr, mechanical engineer and attorney practicing in Petoskey, Michigan.