Last week the Associated Press removed the term illegal immigrant from its stylebook. This followed claims, aired with especial insistence since last year, that the term is a disguised slur, designating certain persons as “illegal” in neglect of all else that comprises their personhood.
The debate over this issue implies that the word illegal is being used in an unusual way. However, it isn’t. Judgments on illegal immigrant turn not on the question as to whether a person can be designated illegal – there is no coherent argument that they cannot – but on whether one approves of the basis upon which our nation classifies persons as illegal.
The idea that illegal is misused in applying to a human being has a visceral appeal, but founders on both logic and custom. Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who revealed his own undocumented status last year, observes that we do not tar someone as an “illegal driver” after they have run a red light. However, the analogy is off. To reside in a country illegally is an ongoing condition, whereas there is no rule that someone who has run a red light is thereafter forbidden to drive.
As such, in English we apply adjectives to describe human beings’ states and conditions all the time with no one batting an eye. Is the public intellectual inaptly designated because so much of her existence takes place in private? We also apply adjectives in judgmental ways. Unlikely would be the argument that someone should only be designated a drunk driver while committing the offensive act in question, thereafter unjustly essentialized by the term ("After all, he isn’t drunk all the time…")
Whatever the arguments for or against replacing illegal with undocumented—although note the AP doesn’t like that term either—the change should be understood not as correcting some kind of inherently sinister adjectival abuse, but as registering a judgment about whether the criticism in question is appropriate. That is, the Associated Press and others may well decide that the grounds for treating a person’s arrival and residence here are unjustified, or insufficiently morally evident, such that the illegality ought not, for reasons of civility, be called attention to.
That, however, is a political preference, an opinion given expression. To frame it as that illegal immigrant is a “slur” requires that on principle we apply the same judgment to, say, serial killer (what about the times in between murders when he isn’t killing anyone?).
We apply descriptive and even judgmental terminology to people and groups on an ongoing basis. We accept that at the time of the utterance, such persons or groups are essentialized according to that terminology. We accept this because it is a plainly inevitable and necessary convenience of human expression and cognition.
It is hardly unreasonable to suppose—as I do—that the classification of so many longtime residents in this country as illegal needs to be changed with all deliberate speed. However, the claim “A person shouldn’t be called illegal” is a handy slogan but sloppy logic, unless we are prepared to accept that a person shouldn’t be called a convicted felon because no human being qualifies, in their dignified essence, as “convicted.”
Decrying the designation of the people as illegal is like trying to put out a housefire with an eyedropper: language’s record on seriously transforming thought is scanty indeed. Many will recall UC Berkeley’s George Lakoff suggesting back in the Bush era that we call taxes “membership fees.” Clever—but how many think the current impasse between Democrats and Republicans over tax hikes would be any less intransigent today if the President were engaging John Boehner in a debate over membership fees?
Pulling illegal immigrant from stylebooks will have, one suspects, about the same impact on thought. Changing how people feel is about, well, changing how people feel, not putting out fatwas on adjectives.