This might well be the only article you ever read on Fusion that
contains the phrase “illegal immigrant.” If necessary, we’ll quote
individuals who use the offensive term. But we’ll never use it
ourselves to describe people living and working in the United
States without every necessary bureaucratic authorization.
The reason is simple: People who speed aren’t “illegal drivers,”
nor are people who fall behind on their taxes “illegal filers.”
Even soldiers fighting against the United States without belonging
to a formal national army are generally referred to as “unlawful”
rather than “illegal” combatants. The use of the term “illegal” to
refer to a person is a usage which is confined to exactly one
group of people: Migrants. As a result, “illegal,” when used as a
noun, always means immigrants — people whose only crime is the
victimless pursuit of liberty and prosperity.
Salmon, and most others who abjure “illegal” immigrant, prefer to
use the adjective “undocumented,” which I also used several times
in my article. The term is clearly accurate, but also incomplete.
The problem of the family in my piece is not simply that it lacks
a document, like an American who, say, is kept from voting because
he or she lacks a driver’s license or other photo I.D. The problem
is that the law currently forbids the family from living in the
United States. The family is not authorized to be here, which is
different, I think, from simply needing a piece of paper. […]
An erudite friend, Michael O’Hare, a professor of public policy at
Berkeley, pointed out that there are apt terms in French — sans
papiers, and situation irrégulière — but I write in English.
If we were being technical, it may be more accurate to describe
these individuals’ status as “unauthorized” rather than
undocumented or illegal. In the end, though, I think my third
category is dispositive. There does seem to be a consensus against
the use of the term by the people most affected by it, who happen
to be a vulnerable minority seeking a better life, and that’s good
enough for me. Personally, I’m dropping the use of the term