Which Is Acceptable: 'Undocumented' vs. 'Illegal' Immigrant?

In the immigration debate, does the term undocumented mean anything different than the term illegal? Join host Michel Martin for a conversation about the terminology with syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette and Kevin Johnson, Dean of the law school at the University of California, Davis, and member of the Board of Directors for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, known as MALDEF.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, we're going to have a conversation about the power of words. The words are undocumented and illegal. In her first opinion on the high court, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor used the term undocumented immigrant to refer to individuals present in the U.S. without proper authorization. According to the New York Times, it was the first time the term had been used in a Supreme Court case and that got a lot of attention in the blogosphere.

Well, you might be asking, in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter which word is used. According to syndicated columnist and regular TELL ME MORE contributor Ruben Navarrette, yes, it does. In a recent column, he took issue with Sotomayor and, most especially, advocates who want to stop others from using the term illegal immigrant, often by invoking the idea that, quote, �no human being is illegal.�

That, he says, is nonsense. He joins us now to explain his views further. Also with us is Kevin Johnson. He's dean of a law school at the University of California at Davis and member of the Board of Directors for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund known as MALDEF. And, of course, we want to mention that we recognize that some of the terms used in this conversation will likely be offensive to some. So that being said, I welcome you both. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. RUBEN NAVARRETTE (Columnist, San Diego Union Tribune): Hi, Michel.

Professor KEVIN JOHNSON (Dean, University of California Davis School of Law): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, Ruben, I want to mention that the column along with a couple of others has generated such a firestorm that one of the newspapers that carries your column felt the need to write another column defending their decision to publish you. So I take it there are a lot of strong feelings out there about this issue. Do I have that right?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Absolutely. And strong feelings on the right and the left, and one thing that's really interesting is both the right and the left are not in a mood to negotiate. They want you to agree with them a 100 percent of the time. And I get no credit on the left for agreeing with them nine out of 10 times, and likewise on the right.

I mean I feel like I'm in the middle of this windstorm blowing in both directions, right and left, and I'm holding on to this pole in the ground, and all I feel is this wind pushing me back and forth, because the issue is such that there is this kind of clash of absolute opinions, where I can say something like I support comprehensive immigration reform that allows us to legalize 12 million illegal immigrants.

And the folks on the left loved everything I just said except for the phrase illegal immigrants. They want me to call them undocumented workers, undocumented persons or something. That's what I took issue with.

MARTIN: Well, let's go through the columns. The columns are more nuanced than some people may think just based on our sort of description of it. Now you agree, you say in the column, that the term illegal alien is degrading, even dehumanizing.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: You said it may even be sort of a justification for treating people - mistreating people because it's dehumanizing. But, you say, that the creed of the immigrant rights movement that, quote, �no human being is illegal is nonsense.� Why is it nonsense?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Yeah, because we're - human beings do sometimes commit illegal acts. They are here unauthorized. They're here without permission in the United States. Their presence here is illegal, it's unauthorized. It's - if it wasn't a problem, we wouldn't round them up and deport them back to Mexico or whatever country they're from. So it's really kind of a semantic discussion about whether or not they're here illegally or not.

This phrase that I hear sometimes bandied about on the left - no human being is illegal - is to my mind a way to justify the presence of people who are here without permission by saying it's no big deal and everybody has a right to come here and better their situation and ergo we should have an open border. And so, I think it's a predicament that the folks on the left are in.

At the end of the day, the toughest argument - I know, because I have to fight with the folks on the right all the time - the argument that always stumps me is what part of illegal don't you understand? These people are here illegally. And I think, when the left hears that, they decided, well, let's just change the word and we'll be done with it.

MARTIN: Okay, Dean Johnson, what about you?

Prof. JOHNSON: I agree with Ruben. I think that terminology is important. And as you say, the power of words has meaning particularly when we talk about a divisive issue like immigration, which is controversial and is very contentious. And for that reason, I think, we need to try to ensure that we have calm, reason and rationality in the debate. And I fear that illegal immigrant - the term - is a loaded term. It's not as loaded as some of it's predecessors like illegal alien or wetback.

But it still is a loaded term. And when we talk about drivers who violate the driving laws, we don't talk about illegal drivers. We talk about children who work in violation of the child labor laws. We don't talk about illegal children. And I think it's much too comprehensive to talk about illegal immigrants when, as Ruben's column accurately points out, that could be somebody who's reentered after committing felonies. It could be somebody who overstayed a business visa or a tourist visa, but really it creates bad connotations from the outset and it's easy to give in to people to treat dehumanized illegal immigrants in a harsh way than it is to treat people in a harsh way.

MARTIN: Dean, can I push you on this point? Just because a term may create bad connotations for some people doesn't mean it's by definition not to be used. Like affirmative action for some people offers bad connotations, they don't think that's a good term, but it does - you know, affirmative action does, more or less, exist. It doesn't - it's not an intrinsically negative term unless one chooses to make it so. So is there something about illegal immigrant per se that you think is by definition so dehumanizing that it can't be used or shouldn't be used in polite discourse? In polite discourse - for people who really are trying to have an honest conversation and aren't trying to spin it one way or the other.

Mr. JOHNSON: No, and I wouldn't - I'm not one of the people writing to try to get Ruben's column pulled from the newspaper, and he can use the term, but when you start the discussion by labeling a the person's status as illegal without defining what that precisely means, you create connotations and ill-will toward that person.

I mean, there's other terms used in political debates that we know are loaded. We know that the welfare queen is a loaded term. We know that quota queen is a loaded term.

MARTIN: Yeah, but that's slang.

Mr. JOHNSON: That is slang. This is slang too. This is nothing in the immigration laws. You're not pulling anything out of the statute.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I don't think - you know, if you did a search, if you did a search in my business of various New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times stories, AP stories, going back for the last five or 10 years, you would find thousands of references to the phrase illegal immigrant. I don't think we could say that all those papers, all those news outlets, are committing an act of slang, that they're bandying about slang.

I mean, the term is accurate. They're here illegally. They have an unauthorized presence here. As I point out in my column, it's a little tricky when you get down to the border because some people who come by are committing felonies because they've been deported before. Some people are committing misdemeanors. Some people are merely committing an administrative violation.

Mr. JOHNSON: Which is...

MARTIN: Hold on...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: It's no crime technically, it's an administrative violation, but it has a remedy. The remedy is to be deported back to your home country.

Mr. JOHNSON: Unless...

MARTIN: Gentlemen, let me jump in just briefly to say if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the use of the term illegal versus undocumented to describe persons who are in the U.S. without proper authorization, and we're talking about whether it matters which term you use.

We're talking with syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette. And we're talking with Kevin Johnson. He's dean of the law school at the University of California at Davis.

Ruben, let me push you on this. There was a column in the New York Times a couple of years ago, in 2007, by editorial writer Lawrence Downes, and he wrote the word illegal modifies not the crime but the person, and by definition that that is the problem, that normally when we describe certain behavior, we're describing acts. We're describing, we say - well, murder, I don't know. One does use the term murderer but generally as a sort of a - we say a person who did the following as opposed to this person is that and that - so what do you make of that argument? I mean, we don't generally say Martha Stewart, illegal stock-trader. We don't say - you know...

Mr. NAVARRETTE: I think it does modify the person. I think the phrase legal immigrant also modifies the person. It tells me that that person came legally. If someone comes illegally or overstays their visa once here, that means they're here illegally.

And I think it's possible to play this game over and over again, but all we end up doing is alienating the left from the mainstream. I mean, if you're somebody in Congress who supports a plan to allow illegal immigrants to become legal, to my mind, game over. You know, hey, you've accomplished something. But if you want to nitpick over the very word, you seem to me to be the kind of person that is not content to have friends and allies. You want to stand alone because you continue to alienate people who might normally be on your side.

And for me, the last thing, I remember a conversation just recently with an incredibly sympathetic crowd. It was all pro-comprehensive immigration reform, and the guy who was leading it said: I'm fed up with the use of the word undocumented. I said what do you mean? He says: These people have documents. Forty percent of the people who are here illegally overstayed a visa. The others are using fraudulent, fake documents. They've got documents galore. The documents are no good. How can they be undocumented?

MARTIN: So what term did he want?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Illegal, illegal immigrants. Call them illegal immigrants. Don't use it as a noun. Don't say illegals. Don't say illegal alien. But I am just not convinced that somehow thousands of references in our media by organizations like the New York Times - you'd be hard-pressed to call them anti-immigrant at the New York Times -somehow when they use the phrase illegal immigrant, they're engaging in slang. It just doesn't make sense.

MARTIN: Dean?

Mr. JOHNSON: It's not all that different to me when advocates of immigrants don't like particular terms like illegal immigrants. It reminds me a lot of African-Americans not liking the term Negro or to Latinos not liking the term Hispanic, and I know Ruben doesn't like that either.

But I tend to think that terminology is important - that's why we're talking about it, and I think we should be careful in our terminology, and just because the New York Times does something or USA Today or San Diego Union-Tribune says something repeatedly doesn't make it right. It certainly doesn't make it legal.

You'll find nothing in a law review article talking about illegal immigrant, any reputable one anyway.

MARTIN: What term to you prefer, Dean?

Mr. JOHNSON: I use undocumented immigrants. I use non-citizens. I use people here in violation of the immigration laws. I try to use technically accurate terms that are known and used in common parlance in law.

MARTIN: Ruben, near the end of your piece, you write that for me the preferred term is illegal immigrant, but you said - frankly, I think the whole debate amounts to a silly waste of time and energy. Why do you say that?

Mr. NAVARRETTE: To amplify that just a bit, I mean, it is - if you want to have a conversation about whether we should use African-Americans or Negro, for instance, there are a thousand other concerns that the black community has to face at this moment. I shouldn't be faulted for losing patience with that discussion.

Likewise with regard to illegal versus undocumented, there are bigger fish to fry in this debate, and I think it is a waste of time.

MARTIN: Dean?

Mr. JOHNSON: I don't think it is a waste of time because it frames the debate that we're going to have. If we refer to people as illegal, inhuman, illegal aliens, wetbacks, Mexicans, Hispanics, people we don't like, devils, it affects how the debate is going to take place, and I think we have to be very careful in the debate, and we're already seeing in this discussion of comprehensive immigration reform a very heated, contentious and soon, hopefully not, but probably an overheated debate.

So I think it does matter what terminology is used, and we should take care in using it, and I think it's important.

MARTIN: Kevin Johnson is the dean of the law school at the University of California at Davis. He's a member of the board of directors for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, known as MALDEF, and he joined us from the facilities at UC Davis. We were also joined by syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette. He's a regular TELL ME MORE contributor. He was kind enough to join us from KOGO in San Diego.

If you want to read Ruben's piece that we're talking about, we'll have a link on our site, as well as another widely quoted column taking the opposite view by New York Times writer Lawrence Downes. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you.

Mr. NAVARRETTE: Thank you.

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