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Those who agree with Mr. Vargas say Illegal should be banned because it suggests that illegal immigrants are criminals, which often isn't true. No human being is illegal, they say. Those who disagree say Mr. Vargas is trying to whitewash the truth. Words like "undocumented" ignore the fact that the people so described have broken the law. As so often happens in the immigration debate, these people end up talking past one other. (Look at the comments on Ms. Sullivan's blog, and the ones that I expect will attach to this post.)
I'm in roughly the same spot I was in five years ago: I use "illegal" somewhat interchangeably with "undocumented," recognizing that both words are imperfect. I also use "unauthorized," which is unfamiliar and a little clunky, but has a distinct advantage: while it acknowledges the unlawfulness of someone's immigration status, it also recognizes that this status can be fixed. This is where "illegal" causes the most trouble, and where I find myself empathizing with Mr. Vargas.
What bothers both of us is the way "illegal" in "illegal immigrant" defines an entire person, not merely an unlawful act. It taints everything that person does, and suggests an irreparable offense. This is what many people can't get their heads around, and why the simple act of legalization through punishment and reparation - paying a fine and back taxes, getting to the back of the citizenship line - is unthinkable to them.
And if immigrants are "illegal," then it follows that they don't deserve legal protections. You can do anything you want to them - abuse them, insult and berate them, arrest and detain them, split up their families - because their "illegality" severs them from any rights. That's the argument used in Arizona and Alabama, and it has the advantage of being easy to understand. As one of my immigration-activist sources says, it's very hard to fight for civil rights and fair treatment for "illegal immigrants" because you can never complete the sentence "Illegal immigrants shouldâ€¦."
Of course they shouldn't - they're illegal! The word turns 11 million people into a suspect class of quasi-criminals. It is a class-action adjective. It is the reason the country has not yet passed sweeping immigration reform, which in theory should be an easy thing to do - it's a simple reordering of the labor market with the labor supply.
Here's what's so frustrating: The word I find necessary is also one that is powerfully useful - for the reasons above - to the many passionate participants in the immigration debate who don't want any "illegals" to ever become "legal." These are the people who hate pressing "1" for English. They are the anti-immigration groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Numbers USA and the Center for Immigration Studies, created by a zero-population-growth zealot named John Tan ton.
Those groups have distanced themselves from their founder's xenophobia, but are pursuing his dream of lower immigration rates and increased deportation, and staunchly oppose any and all legalization programs, which they deride as "amnesty for illegals." And then there are the racists, who see "illegal immigrant" as shorthand for "Latino." For them "illegal" is a perfect slur, because it cloaks their bigotry with the sheen of virtue.
People who hate immigrants can fling "illegal" as viciously and effectively as the N-word - and I have heard them do this at rallies on street corners in Phoenix- and yet when they do, they do so indignantly, taking great offense if anyone suggests their words were motivated not by scrupulosity about the law, but by hatred. All the while, people like me keep trying to use "illegal immigrant" dispassionately, to describe someone from another country who enters this one without permission, who has no legal right to be here, no documents conferring authorized status, whose presence poses a challenge to the economy and society.
The United States has absorbed wave upon wave of people who fit that exact definition. The first ones wore big black shoes and buckles on their hats. We mark their arrival every year with a celebration of America's first great immigrant amnesty, also called "Thanksgiving." Maybe Mr. Vargas and others will succeed in driving out "illegal." It won't be the first time a word has become defunct through misuse or changing times. Many a well-meaning person has innocently used words like "Negro" and "retarded," for example, and one is long gone, the other (I hope) is on the way out. But a change in usage won't necessarily change hearts.
As the linguist and former senator S.I. Hayakawa used to say, the word is not the thing, the map is not the territory, and the symbol is not the thing symbolized. "You don't change the word, you change the attitude," Mr. Hayakawa said. Good thing I am not an illegal immigrant. There is no way out of that trap. It's the crime you can't make amends for. Nothing short of deportation will free you from it; such is the mood of the country today. And that is a problem.
America has a big problem with illegal immigration, but a big part of it stems from the word "illegal." It pollutes the debate. It blocks solutions. Used dispassionately and technically, there is nothing wrong with it. Used as an irreducible modifier for a large and largely decent group of people, it is badly damaging. And as a code word for racial and ethnic hatred, it is detestable.
This is what I disagree with
I disagree with the way they treat the illegal aliens and I know like the word illegal hurts them. So I wish they can change the word or use some other word for them. I understand the word and I know how the people feel when they are called illegal, "Illegal" is accurate insofar as it describes a person's immigration status. About half of the people it applies to entered the country unlawfully and I understand. The rest are those who entered legally but did not leave when they were supposed to. The statutory penalties associated with their misdeeds are not insignificant, but neither are they criminal.
You recognize that the vast majority of "illegal immigrants" have no criminal intent, but are aspiring workers who have a critically important place in the economy and society at large, as employees, entrepreneurs, taxpayers, parents - and as Americans-to-be. Let's get them. Let's bring them out of the shadows and allow them to earn legal status- by meeting reasonable conditions, like learning English and waiting until the legal immigration backlogs are cleared.