It's not illegal to be accurate
The Orwellian use of language is a common ploy in our political debates.
Veteran campaigners in the art of public persuasion know that those who want to control an issue must shape the language with which it is discussed.
That's why the traditional phrase "global warming" has been slowly, but inexorably, transformed to "climate change" in public discussion. Similarly, homosexual marriage has gone through repeated public relations iterations — gay marriage, same-sex marriage and, today, marriage equality.
Proponents of those causes don't just embrace new, softer descriptions but denounce those who use the old as bigots.
The latest PR language shift concerns the immigration debate. A U.S. House committee last week held a hearing on the question that featured a United States resident who is here in violation of federal law.
Jose Vargas let committee members know that he resents being called an "illegal immigrant," even though he concedes that he is here illegally.
"When you inaccurately call me 'illegal,' you are not only dehumanizing me, you're offending (members of my family). No human being is illegal," Vargas said.
He described himself as an "undocumented" immigrant. Why is he undocumented? Because his immigration here is in violation of federal law, in other words illegal.
Vargas is supported in his choice of phrasing by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, who warned committee members about using what he called unacceptable language.
"I hope no one uses the term 'illegal immigrants' here today. Our citizens are not — the people in this country are not 'illegal.' They are 'out of status.' They are 'new Americans that are immigrants,' and I think that we can forge a path to citizenship that will be able to pass muster," he said.
Conyers' mangled righteousness, however, did not explain why the individuals in question are "out of status" Americans or "new Americans that are immigrants."
That's not to say that some people cannot be "new Americans who are immigrants." People see them all the time, usually when they are sworn in as citizens in naturalization proceedings overseen by the local federal court.
But those new Americans followed the rules to immigrate to the United States. They did not ignore federal immigration law and sneak into the country, which is why they are "undocumented immigrants," or "out of status" immigrants or — gasp! — "illegal immigrants."
The words "illegal immigrants" describes those who come here in violation of federal law. Vargas asserted that immigrants who are in this country illegally should be given legal status so that "we can actively participate in our democracy."
But one of the precepts of being a citizen in a democratic country is respect for the law. People are not allowed to pick and choose the laws they obey. Those who do engage in behavior that is properly described as "illegal."