But describing an immigrant as “illegal” is legally inaccurate. Being in the country without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one. (Underscoring this reality, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrotefor the majority opinion on SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial immigration law: “As a general rule, it is not a crime for a movable alien to remain in the United States.”) In a country that believes in due process of the law, calling an immigrant “illegal” is akin to calling a defendant awaiting trial a “criminal.” The term “illegal” is also imprecise. For many undocumented people — there are 11 million in the U.S. and most have immediate family members who are American citizens, either by birth or naturalization — their immigration status is fluid and, depending on individual circumstances, can be adjusted.
When journalists, who are supposed to seek neutrality and fairness, use the term, they are politicizing an already political issue. (How can using “illegal immigrant” be considered neutral, for example, when Republican strategist Frank Luntz encouraged using term in a 2005 memo to tie undocumented people with criminality?) And the term dehumanizes and marginalizes the people it seeks to describe. Think of it this way: In what other contexts do we call someone illegal? If someone is driving a car at 14, we say “underage driver,” not “illegal” driver.” If someone is driving under influence, we call them a “drunk driver,” not an “illegal driver.” Put another way, how would you feel if you — or your family members or friends — were referred to as “illegal”?