There's Nothing Wrong With the Term "Illegal Immigrant"

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Unfortunately, you can probably set your watches and begin the countdown to the cries of "white privilege" showing up in the comment section or getting aimed at me on Twitter, but here goes nothing: There isn't a thing wrong grammatically or journalistically with the term "illegal immigrant." Sure, I understand that some very well-meaning people find "illegal immigrant" personally offensive and feel that it shouldn't be used by any reputable media outlet, but the issue they have with the phrase is, yes, personal and is in no way related to whether it holds up as proper English, no matter how much anyone would like to make you -- or him- or herself -- believe otherwise.

On Tuesday morning, a group of potentially hundreds, led by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and activist Jose Antonio Vargas, will protest in front of the New York Times building to demand that the paper stop using what it calls "the I-Word" in its copy, citing a recent decision by the Associated Press to ban the term "illegal" as a descriptor of any immigrant to the United States. Many Latino activists consider the AP ruling a big victory in their fight to remove "illegal immigrant" from the American lexicon and they're incensed that the New York Times continues to debate whether to change its own policy. Vargas and those in attendance hope that their show of strength will push the Times to do what they feel is the right thing.

Here's the problem, though: What they're advocating isn't the right thing, at least not for the reasons they're advocating it. It can certainly be argued that because there are those who believe the word "illegal," when used to describe an immigrant, is offensive that's reason enough to scrub it from the official stylebooks of America's various news organizations. If you want to debate the subject on those terms, have at it. But it's disingenuous to attempt to claim that the fight over "illegal immigrant" comes down to a need to be grammatically correct rather than simply politically correct. And for the outlets that see fit to change their policy on this, it's ridiculous to lie to the public and to try to lie to themselves by pretending that their decisions were based on anything but the desire not to offend.

"Illegal immigrant" is a perfectly acceptable term to describe someone who has immigrated to a country illegally when his or her immigration status is the subject at hand. As terminology, it's thoroughly benign, devoid of any accusation or derision. It's a given -- or at least it should be -- that saying that someone is an "illegal immigrant" in no way implies that that person is illegal, as has so often been argued by the phrase's detractors; it merely denotes immigration status. When you say that someone is a "terrible driver," you're obviously not saying that the person in question is terrible, since the adjective "terrible" is associated only with how he or she is as a driver. The adjective "illegal" pertains only to the immigration status that's implied in the term. Nothing more, nothing less.

Now, are there those who shorten "illegal immigrant" to the more derogatory-sounding "illegal" and do they sometimes do it with the goal of insulting a specific nationality or ethnicity? Yes, absolutely. Again, the question becomes whether that factor is the kind of thing that, when considered, should be enough to push journalistic organizations toward banning the phrase entirely. But be honest about why you're making the judgment call. Admit that you're at best trying to stave off an unfair negative connotation or not contribute to the misappropriation of the term, or, at worst, giving in to political pressure exerted by those who take offense and who fear being on the receiving end of the hostility that negative connotation might elicit.

There is no "I-word," at least not like there's an "N-word" or an "F-word." "Illegal" as a word is neutral; the only pejorative meaning it possesses is what it's given, and that can be said of almost any word. The debate then becomes not simply about who's assigning it a negative connotation and why -- what their political agenda is -- but, on the flip side of that coin, how much is too much when it comes to submitting to the subjective and occasionally frivolous requests of whichever aggrieved party has chosen to make itself known this week. Whoever you are in this country, you have every right to be offended by whatever you want, but that doesn't necessarily mean you get to make anyone or everyone heed your demands or conform to your worldview until you're no longer offended.

Maybe the damage done by those who would "misuse" the relatively harmless term "illegal immigrant" is worth taking into consideration by, say, the New York Times in deciding its official grammatical policy -- and maybe it should respond accordingly. But if it does choose to change that policy, it should at least be honest about why. And in this case, it's all about politics and not at all about linguistics.