Yesterday, the Associated Press declared that the phrase illegal immigrant was no longer kosher, which is a big deal, since when the AP changes its style guide, newspapers around the country go along with it. Naturally, many people (mostly conservatives) responded to the tiny tweak with howls—and tweets—of derision.
The AP’s reasoning for this fairly mild mandate is that illegal shouldn’t be a descriptor for a person; indeed, “No person is illegal” is a common pro-immigration slogan. “Illegal should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally,” Kathleen Carroll, a senior vice president and executive editor at the AP, wrote to explain the decision. So you can say, “Chen illegally overstayed his visa and lived illegally in the United States,” but Chen himself is not an illegal immigrant. Nor is he an undocumented worker, or an illegal alien, terms which have already fallen out of AP favor.
Though there are meaty—if often abstract and geeky—debates to be had over language, from the legacy of the N word to rigidly enforced political correctness on college campuses. So far, this war of words has been filled with self-righteous, obnoxious carping about terminology, which is far less helpful than discussing whether it’s wrong for poor people to cross an imaginary line in search of better lives. But at the same time, this conscious word-choice change points at the bigger issue of why 11 million people who live and work in the US are treated as an invading army by so many of their fellows.
People (again, mostly conservatives) who equate murder, rape, theft, or even private trespassing with illegal immigration are equating a crime against the state with a crime against individual humans. This is just one item on a laundry list of hypocrisies against conservatives’ supposed small-government, pro-family, pro-individual agenda. There are few people more pro-family and more antigovernment than, say, a young man illegally crossing into the United States in order to work and send money back to his loved ones in Mexico. Nor is there anything pro-family about blaming the children illegally brought into the United States with dehumanizing terms like anchor baby and suggesting that they “go home” to countries in which they’ve never lived.
Perhaps technically, people who have illegally immigrated are illegal immigrants, in that they emigrated from their home countries by crossing a border in violation of a law, or stayed after their visas expired. And it could be worse, wording-wise: illegals sounds downright nasty and suggests that a single, state-prohibited action is the whole extent of one’s identity, and that a person can be reduced to their relationship to the law.
While we’re giving the phrase illegal immigrant the benefit of the doubt, we should note that a system in which a few people deciding that certain phrases are no longer "correct" is awfully clunky. But that’s what the AP Stylebook is supposed to do. It’s a style guide, and the people in charge of it occasionally make decisions that some terms—like calling people, rather than actions, “illegal”—are no longer respectable. We no longer cruelly and imprecisely refer to someone who suffers from a spinal injury as a “cripple,” or talk about “the coloreds”; sometimes the language journalists use evolves abruptly based on justified thoughtfulness, not some left-Orwellian plot to muddy the clear, conservative waters of truth.
Anti-immigration conservatives aren’t just losing a minor scuffle over language, they’re losing the broader war. Net migration from Mexico fell to zero in 2012, and anger against people who are here without state permission—whatever you choose to call them—is fading. And the Obama administration, despite its long history of deportations, has turned toward more humanitarian policies.
As the yelling over illegal immigrant shows, there are still reserves of outrage when it comes to immigration, but most of it is as overwrought as ever, like when budget cuts led to the release of several hundred imprisoned immigrants and Republicans said that this was “endangering American lives.” The Canadian-born, half-Cuban Republican Senator Ted Cruz remains opposed to amnesty for people living in this country illegally, but that’s contrary to even many of his fellow high-profile Republicans, like Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.
To suggest, like Cruz did, that immigrants wait for years in a line that doesn’t even exist for many of them is a joke. It’s an impossible thing to ask, particularly of lower-skilled workers who most likely will never get in legally at all. And a more militarized border is not a solution if you’ve paid attention to the state of law enforcement in America or to disturbing phenomena like the internal immigration checkpoints 25 to 75 miles inside of the US border. If Republicans and others are finally realizing any of this, so much the better.
It’s almost tempting to advocate for a proud embrace of illegal immigrant. That would send a hell of a message that breaking the law does not make you a bad person, especially when the law itself is bad and enforced by increasingly aggressive government agencies. But that’s not fair to the millions of immigrants who would prefer an existence free of attacks by cops or pundits using them as political footballs. These immigrants, whose presence is an “issue” with which the country must deal, are pretty damn similar to you and to me: a few are violent, they may sometimes break the law, but most just want to live and work and be happy—whatever you call them.
More on immigration: