On October 15, linguist Neal Whitman wrote a piece on his blog in which he conceded that there are several good reasons to avoid the term “illegal immigrant.” He cites three of these:
- It is politically divisive or inflammatory.
- It presumes guilt before due process has been done.
- It is inaccurate in characterizing people who entered legally but overstayed their visa, or did not come here of their own accord.
Mr Whitman accepts all of these arguments, and grants that the term “illegal alien” is dehumanizing and should be avoided at all times. He does register a dissent from a fourth argument, however:
[The phrase “illegal immigrant”] is nonsensical, because illegal refers to acts, not to people.
Mr Whitman categorizes this claim as “just plain silly, and grasping at straws.” He explains:
When the noun is the agentive form of a verb, and the adjective is the morphological analog of a manner adverb, there is a common, productive rule of semantic composition that gets you to the accepted meaning. Let me illustrate with an example unburdened by controversy. If I were to say, “Sandy is a deep thinker,” it would be willfully obtuse to say, “Hey, wait a minute! People can’t be deep!” If I were to tell you, “Lee is a beautiful dancer,” I could be telling the truth even if Lee’s face, when covered by a paper bag, could still make clocks lose two minutes per hour. In short,
dances beautifully : beautiful dancer :: thinks deeply : deep thinker :: immigrates illegally : illegal immigrant
Object to the term illegal immigrant on ethical, political, or legal grounds if you want to. But don’t resort to claiming the term embodies sloppy semantics, when it’s the most natural way to refer to someone who immigrated illegally. That just makes it look like you’ll accept any old argument that favors your side, and weakens the more valid ones.
On October 17, I commented on Mr Whitman’s post as follows:
I have a reservation about “illegal immigrant.” It is a long, awkward expression (six syllables, two lexical items, several highly abstract notions embedded in it,) so people will naturally want to shorten it. And the form to which it always seems to be shortened is “illegal.” As in, “How many illegals are in the USA?” That usage doesn’t exactly invite the full range of opinions as to what our policies should be with regard to immigration. Granted, a phrase like “undocumented worker” also signals a strong preference in the same regard. Using either term suggests that the speaker has set his or her face firmly against one side of the discussion. Perhaps if we as a society declared both expressions off-limits in polite conversation, people would come up with a truly neutral term. Of course, there would always be the danger that one or both of the expressions would sneak back into the language and steel American jaws, but that’s just something we’d have to guard against.*
Full disclosure: I’m a functional linguist, so I tend to be skeptical of people talking about what “words mean” in the absence of a person who used those words to encode a specific message. Also, I’m pretty far to the left of mainstream in American politics, and I’ve spent years working with immigrants, so you can guess what my personal choice of phrase is.
That said, my intuition is that the problem with “illegal immigrant” isn’t as much in the semantics of adjective-noun compounds as in the associations with the word “illegal.” The top hits of a COCA** search for “illegal [*nn]” are “immigrants, immigration, aliens,” and after that we get into “drugs, weapons, substances, acts, dumping, gambling, arms,” as well as “workers,” which seems to be a euphemism for “immigrants.” Going down the list, other collocates that refer to human beings are always other terms for *ahem* undocumented workers: “residents,” “entrants” (into the U.S.), “population.” The top 100 collocations in COCA don’t show any “illegal” + person pairings except for “illegal immigrants” and synonyms.
So the question becomes, if the language permits “illegal N” to mean “person who did N in an illegal way,” why is N nearly exclusively reserved to signify “immigrate into the United States”? Why isn’t Bernie Madoff an “illegal banker,” or Jack Kevorkian an “illegal doctor,” or Lance Armstrong an “illegal cyclist”?
The CDA*** researcher in me says, we’re making a class of “illegal things” here, that is implicitly expressing an ideology about the nature of illegality. The contents of that class include assault weapons, addictive drugs, the pollution of waterways with industrial runoff, cutting trees on protected land, running a casino out of your basement … and sneaking across the US border because conditions in your home country are so dire that you have no hope for a better life there.
Mr Whitman’s post and the discussion appended to it presaged a news story that broke a few days later. On October 19, the Associated Press released a statement announcing that it would continue to use the phrase “illegal immigrant” to refer to people who have entered and established residence in the United States without the permission of the legal authorities. The wire service‘s defense of this decision reads eerily like what Mr Whitman had posted a few days before:
Finally, there’s the concern that “illegal immigrant” offends a person’s dignity by suggesting his very existence is illegal. We don’t read the term this way. We refer routinely to illegal loggers, illegal miners, illegal vendors and so forth. Our language simply means that a person is logging, mining, selling, etc., in violation of the law — just as illegal immigrants have immigrated in violation of the law. (Precisely to respect the dignity of people in this situation, the Stylebook warns against such terms as “illegal alien,” “an illegal” or “illegals.”)
The press release goes on to describe circumstances in which the AP would avoid the phrase or add qualifications to it, descriptions which again recall Mr Whitman’s agreement that the first three arguments he cites constitute good reasons for using another expression:
The first thing to note is that “illegal immigrant” is not the only term we use. The Stylebook entry on this subject was modified a year ago to make clear that other wording is always acceptable, including “living in the country without legal permission.”
In fact, there are cases where “illegal immigrant” doesn’t work at all. For instance, if a young man was brought into the country by parents who entered illegally, he didn’t consciously commit any act of “immigration” himself. It’s best to describe such a person as living in the country without legal permission, and then explain his story.
There are also cases where a person’s right to be in the country is currently in legal dispute; in such a case, we can’t yet say the person is here illegally.
But what about the cases where we do write “illegal immigrants”? Why not say “undocumented immigrants” or “unauthorized immigrants,” as some advocates would have it?
To us, these terms obscure the essential fact that such people are here in violation of the law. It’s simply a legal reality.
Terms like “undocumented” and “unauthorized” can make a person’s illegal presence in the country appear to be a matter of minor paperwork. Many illegal immigrants aren’t “undocumented” at all; they may have a birth certificate and passport from their home country, plus a U.S. driver’s license, Social Security card or school ID. What they lack is the fundamental right to be in the United States.
Without that right, their presence is illegal. Some say the word is inaccurate, because depending on the situation, they may be violating only civil, not criminal law. But both are laws, and violating any law is an illegal act (we do not say “criminal immigrant”).
Mr Whitman’s blog is titled “Literal-Minded“; its tagline is “Linguistic Commentary from a Guy Who Takes Things Too Literally.” So when he argues that the rules of English semantics permit a construction like “illegal immigrant,” it is quite believable that his agenda does not go beyond the explication of those rules. The sheer fact that the phrase is well-formed does not mean that anyone should ever use it, and so his argument is by no means a defense of its use. He recognizes this; the AP does not. Its press release offers no defense of the phrase beyond its formal admissibility as a semantic structure, and does not answer any of the objections Mr Whitman had so readily acknowledged.
On October 31, Slate magazine carried a piece by Kerry Howley, associated with the title “Is Saying ‘Illegal Immigrant’ Like Saying ‘Illegal Logger‘?” Ms Howley reports on the AP’s decision; a photo accompanying the piece carries the caption “Support for undocumented immigrants at the Democratic National Convention. Supporters of illegal loggers never showed.” Neither Mr Whitman nor the AP had mentioned any particular group or individual that had asked the wire service to discontinue use of the phrase “illegal immigrant”; Ms Howley links to a website associated with the campaign known as “Drop the I Word.” In response to the AP’s observation that “[t]erms like ‘undocumented’ and ‘unauthorized’ can make a person’s illegal presence in the country appear to be a matter of minor paperwork,” Ms Howley argues:
“Illegal” suggests fault with immigrants rather than the system of laws in which they are ensnared. It’s possible that illegal loggers are illegal because of poorly drawn statutes about public land—maybe they’re really freedom loggers—but that’s not the connotation.
“Undocumented” places the burden on the bureaucracy rather than on the moral integrity of any particular person. That’s the correct position in my view, and I reveal prior judgments when I use the word “undocumented” just as restrictionists do when they say “illegal.” What’s bizarre is that the Associated Press, having deemed “undocumented” a loaded term, thinks “illegal” to be perfectly descriptive, sprung from nowhere, privileging no side of the debate. It may be that there is no objective term with which to describe people guilty of being in a particular space without state permission. You have to pick one and own it, which “Drop the I-word” seems to recognize. They suggest you start saying “NAFTA Refugee.”
Here Ms Howley echoes my comment of the 17th, though without my suggestion that we might try to invent a new term that will be neutral. Of course, I made that suggestion in less than total earnestness- there doesn’t seem to be any great demand for detached, objective discussion of immigration policy, much less for new vocabulary to promote such discussion. All sides of the debate are driven by people who favor policies which they regard as indispensable to their livelihoods. In that position, people look at words as weapons with which to fight the enemies who threaten them, not as laboratory equipment with which to gain understanding. So when you choose your words, you choose your battles.
*None of the subsequent commenters said anything about “steel American jaws,” a line of which I was somewhat proud. I would have been happy if they had said it made them laugh, but I’m not upset that they didn’t.
**COCA = the Corpus of Contemporary American English
***CDA = Critical Discourse Analysis