Those on the pro-immigrant left have shown considerable courage in taking on Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Minutemen vigilantes, border walls and an endless supply of lame immigration enforcement measures. But there's one thing that makes them tremble: the word "illegal." That's what occurs to me whenever I hear the slogan: "No human being is illegal." It's the creed of the immigrant rights movement — a cause for which I'd have warmer feelings if it called itself "the immigrant responsibility movement." Americans often demand their rights while ignoring their responsibilities. Immigrants would do well not to adopt those ways.
No human being is illegal. That's nice. It's also nonsense. Of course, we can do without referring to human beings as "illegals." Even in the shorthand, adjectives are best not used as nouns. The term "illegal aliens" is even worse since it intends to dehumanize a whole group of people, perhaps to make it easier for the rest of us to mistreat them.
But the fact is, these people did break the law, either by entering the country without permission or by remaining here without permission once their visas expired. Granted, technically, they're not all criminals. As any Border Patrol agent will tell you, not everyone who crosses the border uninvited has committed the same kind of offense.
Sure, some are guilty of misdemeanors. Some have committed felonies if they've been deported before and brazenly re-enter the United States.
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But others are guilty of mere administrative violations for which the punishment isn't incarceration but deportation.
Still, in all these cases, it is accurate to refer to these people as illegal immigrants. After all, in getting here or staying here without permission, they did something that was against the law.
Reluctant to accept this uncomfortable truth, the left prefers euphemisms intended to make the violation seem less serious.
Now, thanks to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one euphemism has recently found its way into the annals of the Supreme Court. Her first opinion on the high court came in a case called Mohawk Industries v. Carpenter, which involved a business accused of employing illegal immigrants.
The first Latina on the Supreme Court preferred the term "undocumented immigrant." According to The New York Times, this was the first time that a Supreme Court justice had used that expression. Other justices had gone with "illegal immigrant."
Sotomayor's choice of words got plenty of tongues wagging. The right-wing group Judicial Watch griped that Sotomayor was "keeping with her race-conscious and activist judicial philosophy" by describing illegal immigrants "in a more friendly and politically correct way." But left-wing Latino blogs applauded Sotomayor for making a positive contribution to the court by adding "humanitarian language" to its proceedings.
There are conservatives who, during her confirmation process, accused Sotomayor of promoting an "ethnic chauvinism." And there are liberals who had hoped that she'd provide a fresh viewpoint and champion the oppressed. Now both sides are insisting that they were right all along.
I supported Sotomayor's nomination because she is eminently qualified for the position she now holds. But on the issue of terminology, we part company. I've been writing about immigration for more than 15 years, and I have often defended those who lack legal status. Yet I almost never use the term "undocumented immigrant." When I do, it's usually on second reference. For me, the preferred term is "illegal immigrant." And, frankly, I think the whole debate amounts to a silly waste of time and energy.
Sotomayor obviously feels differently, and I respect that. She has the prerogative to use her term, and I insist on the prerogative to use mine.
Apparently though, that's not good enough for some left-wing activists. After my recent column that criticized Democrats for trying to deceive Latinos into thinking that they support immigration reform when what they really support is their own re-election, a leader of an immigrant rights group agreed with the premise but still found room to quibble about — of all things — my choice of words.
He wrote: "I wonder why you keep using the word illegal after all these years of anti-immigrant speech that have included this word to criminalize our communities." Maybe because the term fits. For my part, I wonder why some people insist on making an already complicated issue even cloudier by engaging in semantic wrangling and denying the obvious.
Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE