Analysis: Why The Debate Over 'Illegal' Matters

"The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act defines immigrants as people who have been lawfully admitted for permanent residence, so 'legal immigrant' is a redundant concept and 'illegal immigrant' is oxymoronic," he noted. "There is nowhere in the legal field that the phrasing 'illegal immigrant' has been the norm. However, that same phrasing has been part of certain political strategies," he said.

Indeed, the phrase "illegal immigrant" hasn't been around for all that long, and was first commonly used in the late-1930's to describe Jews fleeing Nazi Germany into Palestine without authorization. Elie Weisel, the Jewish-American Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, warned for this reason against calling people "illegal," telling then-CNN correspondent Maria Hinojosa that it was dangerous for a society to criminalize a person instead of their behavior.

New York Times writer Lawrence Downes argued in a column last fall that the word "illegal" is troublesome because it paints not only the act of immigration, but everything else an immigrant does, suggesting that unauthorized immigrants are not deserving of any human rights due to their immigration offense.

"If immigrants are 'illegal,' then it follows that they don't deserve legal protections. You can do anything you want to them - abuse them, insult and berate them, arrest and detain them, split up their families - because their 'illegality' severs them from any rights. That's the argument used in Arizona and Alabama, and it has the advantage of being easy to understand."

And Downes brings us back to a very important point. Conversations over words like these make us smarter. They force us as reporters and as a public to face the reality that we have an immigration system that is broken and complicated, and which sometimes puts good people in bad situations.

As journalists, we shouldn't only use words that are "easy to understand," we should use words that make sense for the realities we're describing. And "illegal" just doesn't make sense.

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