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Immigration Reform 2013: The Term "Illegal Immigrant" is Perfectly Acceptable

Last week, the Associated Press dropped the phrase "illegal immigrant" from its stylebook on the grounds that "illegal" should (in their words) "describe only an action" and not a person.

The use of the term "illegal immigrant" has received a lot of criticism in recent years, with some people claiming that it is a slur, dehumanizing, or otherwise offensive. The AP has chosen to replace the term with "people who entered the country illegally," or other wording along those lines.

But this is wrong-headed. "Illegal immigrant" isn't a slur and it doesn't involve deriding anyone. It simply refers to people who, in entering a country, did so by breaking the law. That's all.

And this shouldn't be any surprise. Look at some similar phrases: if I call someone a "legal immigrant," am I saying that they and everything about them is legal? No, I'm not saying they as a person are legal any more than I'm saying that an illegal immigrant is — as a person — illegal. I'm just describing their act of immigration, nothing more.

Likewise, if I say that someone is a "good doctor" or a "bad student," am I saying anything about whether or not they're good or bad as a person? Of course not. I'm simply describing their activity as a doctor or as a student. This criticism of the phrase "illegal immigrant" doesn't track with how adjectives work.

Or nouns, for that matter. When I call someone an "immigrant" — whether legal or illegal — I'm not saying that immigration sums them up or pervades everything about them, just like calling someone a "doctor," "student," "drummer," or "police officer" doesn't describe everything about them. All these words do is communicate that this is a person who came to this country from another one, or who is going to school, or who often plays drums, etc.

The noun doesn't describe the person as a whole any more than the adjective does. It doesn't put them in a box or take away their humanity, and we can go on to describe them as doing things that don't involve emigrating or studying or drumming, etc.

Critics of the phrase "illegal immigrant" are seeing slurs where there aren't any. They're taking offense where offense is neither intended nor present. If we can't use the term "illegal immigrant" without somehow denouncing the person as a whole as illegal, then we can't use the term "bad cook" or "bad singer" (or "bad" anything!) without deriding the person as a whole as bad.

But that's ridiculous. Of course I can say someone is a "bad speller" without saying that they're bad as a person (or even that spelling somehow sums up who they are).

If you want a good shorthand term to refer to people who came here from another country but who broke the law when they did so, "illegal immigrant" is that term. It's not a slur, and it's not offensive.

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