Jeffrey Toobin Swears Off "Illegal Immigrant"

By Jerry Kammer on August 10, 2015

Jeffrey Toobin last month wrote an article in the New Yorker that called attention to the plight of illegal immigrants who anxiously await action from Washington that would pass judicial review and grant them legal status. "The point of my article was to show the human cost of the lengthy political standoff over immigration policy," he writes in a new essay, which was prompted by objections from readers that he shouldn't have used the term "illegal immigrant".

In the new essay, Toobin swears off future use of the term and evaluates arguments for and against use of "illegal immigrant". He says he is not persuaded by the argument that "illegal" is inaccurate. But the heart of the essay is his concern about the emotive power of the controversial two-word phrase. Precision and clarity are not a major concern.

Toobin ponders the question of "whether 'illegal immigrant' has become so widely regarded as pejorative that it should be excluded from civilized discourse."

He explains: "When I wrote my article, I thought it had not; I now think that I may have been wrong." He expresses concern that the term "may have become so toxic" that it calls attention to itself, thereby disrupting the narrative.

The problem with this point is more political than anything else. In a dispute over whether to replace one controversial term with another, whichever term you choose calls attention to itself by showing that you have chosen one side of the argument.

Toobin does not address that issue. He acknowledges that for him the most important consideration is that he now understands there is "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."

So the value that Toobin most values is empathy, which Berkeley linguist and Democratic language coach George Lakoff says is the "guiding liberal principal". Toobin concludes with this brisk declaration: "Personally, I'm dropping the use of the term 'illegal immigrant.'" He does not say what he will now use, though he says "unauthorized" might be better than "undocumented".

Toobin's essay seems to be a sincere evaluation of a complaint raised by readers who must have been delighted with the overall thrust of last month's article. He certainly accomplished his goal of drawing attention to the plight of those he vividly presented as occupants of a legal limbo. He gives negligible attention to the costs and risks of the second mass amnesty that he obviously prefers.

The first mass amnesty became law with the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, a name of such notorious inaccuracy that today's amnesty advocates insist that the reform bill they want would actually provide "earned legalization". Their position is that "amnesty" means unconditional relief. They overlook the fact that many amnesties, like the one in which the IRS goes easy on tax scofflaws provided that they pay up, are earned. That is to say that they are conditional.

The scholarly Toobin would have added an interesting layer to his essay if he had acknowledged that "illegal immigrant" is a linguistic compromise in the interest of avoiding the longstanding term "illegal alien".

Under federal law, an immigrant is someone who is admitted for permanent residence in the United States -- a green card holder. So the compromise involves a contradiction. Technically, an immigrant can't have illegal immigration status any more than a citizen can be undocumented. And the decision to classify people not as aliens, but as immigrants, has an important emotive effect. It invokes the warm associations of "immigrant" and banishes the rather cold and official "alien". "Illegal immigrant", then is a euphemism, but one that doesn't go far enough for Toobin and his allies in the immigration language scuffles.