By Shailee Diwanji
Immigration reform claimed the spotlight in the election in November, but interestingly, when you boil things down, the debate turns on a word. The fight is all about a modifier - the word that modifies "immigrant." The Right adamantly continues to use the common term "illegal immigrant," while the Left insists on the politically correct "undocumented immigrants." And then there's everyone in the middle. So which is acceptable - "illegal immigrant" or "undocumented immigrant"?
Since Justice Sotomayor's first Supreme Court opinion, in which she used the term "undocumented immigrant," the debate has hurtled into the limelight. The Left believes simply that it's the better term to use. Human beings commit illegal acts. But they aren't illegal. "If a driver speeds, is he an illegal driver?" they say. "If a child works in violation of child labor laws, is he an illegal child?" The insinuation is ludicrous. A person isn't illegal. Besides, the term is ambiguous. "Illegal immigrant" could refer to a range of people, from someone who's re-entered the country after committing a felony to someone who simply overstayed a business visa. They do not all deserve the negative connotation that accompanies the word "illegal."
The Right has a simple argument, "Why change the term we have so commonly used?" "Illegal immigrant" isn't degrading or dehumanizing, it's simply the truth. Individuals who are in this country illegally are "illegal immigrants."
The situation gets even more complicated when the political middle is dragged into the debate. Respected journalists, like Ruben Navarrette of the San Diego Union Tribune, have endorsed the Left's legalizing the undocumented immigrants’ campaign—with one caveat –that they use the term "illegal immigrants." The result? Neither the Right nor the Left is pleased.
So it begs the question, this fight over a word, is it really worth it? Ultimately, isn't it the result that counts? Well, yes, and no. The end result matters, but it will be a hollow victory for the Left, immigrants, and their families, if they are marginalized with and through language. Are we, as a country, really willing to repeat history yet again, simply to use words that we KNOW are insulting? Must we relive the shameful "negro" era or the "retarded" era? Is it really okay to dehumanize an entire class of people? So what is in a word? The self-esteem of twelve million people. A reflection of this country. Our inner conscience. Really, everything.