Immigrant from FranceA newly resurrected dispute over word choices has gone viral. Charles Garcia revived the debate by arguing that the term, “illegal immigrant,” is a slur.  Ruben Naverette countered that it is apt, albeit a discomfiting truth, asserting in essence that a spade should be called a spade. Siding with the Supreme Court, Dan Kowalski parsed the term differently and offered a preferred adjective, “unauthorized,” when referring to immigrants, and the noun used in federal law, though repugnant to many, “alien.” Many others in cyberspace, especially friends of Facebook friends, piled on.

The brouhaha evokes the memorable words of Juliet who bemoaned the family feud epitomized by her differently surnamed lover, Romeo:

O, be some other name!

What’s in a name?

that which we call a rose  

By any other name would smell as sweet.  

Few may recall that the aromatic rose of Shakespeare’s coy reference was a double entendre also suggesting the odiferously unhygienic toilets of the Rose Theatre in Old London.

I join the fray and ask:

Is illegal immigrant a “stinking rose?”

Is it an ad hominem attack on Latinos like the now quaint but still non-PC terms, “dago,” or “wop,” or “paddy” or “mick,” used to slime earlier immigrants of Italian or Irish provenance?

I say yes and side with the Drop the ‘i’ campaigners.  

As a matter of law and language, the phrase, “illegal immigrant,” is improper. Worse still, it is a form of groupthink, an egregore with a life of its own, used wittingly by some (the nativists) and probably unintentionally by others (the AP Stylebook editors) as a group defamation, no less than the now discredited, “anchor baby.” Indeed, I would drop both the “i” and the “a,” notwithstanding that they are a statutorily recognized twosome, the even more repulsive,  “illegal alien.”

“Illegal immigrant” is wrong on the law, though crashing the border without inspection is at least a federal misdemeanor.  It is mistaken because it omits a fundamental legal precept, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.  Journalists, egged on by their lawyers, surely know this. Hoping to avoid a defamation suit, they routinely add “alleged” to any assertion of criminality.  When a particular immigrant is convicted of the crimes of illegal entry, or of illegal reentry after deportation, only then might the phrase be legally correct to refer to the individual as an “illegal immigrant.”

But it would still violate the laws of grammar.  “Immigrant” is no less an adjective than a noun. When “immigrant” is used as a modifier and further modified, the term would be correctly phrased in reference to a person as an “illegally immigrant” individual, with the adjective “illegal” thereby converted to the adverb, “illegally.”  Even used as a noun, “immigrant” when modified by “illegal” rings false in modern usage.  If it were otherwise, we would customarily refer to alleged lawbreakers as illegal tax evaders, illegal burglars, illegal child molesters, and yes, illegal lawyers, bankers and senators.  But we do not; hence, proper English usage ordains that “illegal immigrant” is poor parlance.  “Illegal” in reference to immigrants should not be singled out and used differently than references to all other alleged or convicted criminals.

Most importantly, “illegal immigrant” is wrong for its intended message, transformed by repetition into a meme. Frank Luntz, the man who turned the “estate tax” into the “death tax,” has proven beyond doubt that words matter. The illegal immigrant is no longer the loving nanny caring for our kids but that scary “other” who is responsible for the alienation of our affection. Its suffix conjures associations with such other repulsive terms as “vagrant” or “rodent” and combines subconsciously to form “vermin.”

People do not become evil by labeling them so; unless by popular delusion when everyone resorts to the same hurtful, bullying name-calling. We should all cut it out.  Drop the “i.”

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