What are we going to call these people?

An editorial that ran last week in this newspaper on the subject of "amnesty for illegals" reminded me of the way a great public debate is often accompanied by a sort of shadow: the debate over the terms of debate. Often you can tell when public policy is about to shift: The terminology shifts.

Quick, what group of people are we referring to as "illegals"? Do we mean people doing time in the Big House for Murder One? Tax cheats? People who are double parked?

All kinds of activities are illegal in the United States - at the federal, state, or local level. But the people that a respectable newspaper can refer to in a headline simply as "illegals," and know that readers will understand what's meant, are illegal immigrants.

It tells you something about the place of the immigration issue on the national political agenda, doesn't it?

There is a fundamental tension here: One of the first duties - and first privileges - of a sovereign nation is to control its borders. On the other hand, the United States is quite consciously a nation of immigrants. The Statue of Liberty celebrates the continuing enrichment of the nation through immigrants. And, I should mention before I mist up completely, immigrants do a lot of the heavy lifting in America that citizens seem unwilling or unable to do. Immigration is an economic issue.

I've just done a quick Google News search of phrases relevant to the immigration debate. Google News is of interest to a wordsmith because it searches pages that have been professionally edited, as on a newspaper website.

"Illegal aliens," the standard term of a few years ago, showed up 553 times, and is clearly losing ground to "illegal immigrants," which scored 2,970 hits.

"Undocumented immigrants," a phrase that to my editorial sniffer carries more than a whiff of political correctness, came up 732 times.

"Undocumented workers" came up 178 times. "Undocumented residents," also favored by those hesitant to call anyone "illegal," appeared 48 times.

The Monitor stylebook, our guide on matters like this, calls for the use of "illegal or undocumented immigrants," and cautions against "illegal aliens," while allowing "illegals" in tight spaces. Ah, but when is space in a newspaper not tight?

The stylebook at the San Francisco Chronicle, which I suspect could be placed to the Monitor's left on the social/cultural/political spectrum, offers the same two options, but in transposed order - "undocumented immigrants" and "illegal aliens." Writers and editors are instructed to avoid the phrase "illegal aliens" except in direct quotes, and allows "illegals" only in headlines.

What's going on here? I'm torn between wanting a term that preserves the humanity of these newcomers and not wanting to gloss over the fact that the law is the law.

Maybe what we really need is an adverb rather than an adjective: However reasonable it is to speak of "illegal immigration," that inevitably reduces the doers of the deed to "illegal immigrants." But if we speak of people who have immigrated illegally, illegality is pinned to the verb, not the noun; to the sin and not the sinner. But again, when is space in a newspaper not tight?

This column appears with links at: weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy/

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