Posted by Neal on October 15, 2012
With the recently re-ignited debate over the term illegal immigrant, I have heard all the arguments against using the term, including:
- It is politically divisive or inflammatory.
- It presumes guilt before due process has been done.
- It is inaccurate in characterizing people who entered legally but overstayed their visa, or did not come here of their own accord.
- It is nonsensical, because illegal refers to acts, not to people.
I will grant (1), and add that the same applies to the euphemistic undocumented immigrant (and the dysphemistic illegal alien). I will also grant (2), but add that this is fixable with the well-accepted use of alleged in cases where there is doubt. I will also grant (3). But as for (4), this argument is just plain silly, and grasping at straws.
I will grant that when illegal modifies a noun, that noun usually refers to an action. I will further grant that when it does modify a noun that refers to a thing, it usually means that the thing is illegal to possess, as in illegal drugs and illegal weapons. Using those collocations as analogies, we would expect illegal immigrant to mean an immigrant that it is illegal for someone to possess–in other words, a victim of human trafficking. That, of course, is not the meaning that it has.
In fact, that is a good argument (in addition to arguments about dehumanization) for abandoning the term illegal alien. However, that still doesn’t mean that illegal immigrant is nonsense. When the noun is the agentive form of a verb, and the adjective is the morphological analog of a manner adverb, there is a common, productive rule of semantic composition that gets you to the accepted meaning. Let me illustrate with an example unburdened by controversy. If I were to say, “Sandy is a deep thinker,” it would be willfully obtuse to say, “Hey, wait a minute! People can’t be deep!” If I were to tell you, “Lee is a beautiful dancer,” I could be telling the truth even if Lee’s face, when covered by a paper bag, could still make clocks lose two minutes per hour. In short,
dances beautifully : beautiful dancer :: thinks deeply : deep thinker :: immigrates illegally : illegal immigrant
Object to the term illegal immigrant on ethical, political, or legal grounds if you want to. But don’t resort to claiming the term embodies sloppy semantics, when it’s the most natural way to refer to someone who immigrated illegally. That just makes it look like you’ll accept any old argument that favors your side, and weakens the more valid ones.
Update, Oct. 16, 2012: Changed list item #2 from “were born here” (which I’ve known since elementary school automatically confers citizenship) to what I meant to say: “entered legally but overstayed their visa”.