At a town hall meeting in Arizona this week, John McCain shot down a young woman’s request that he “please drop the i-word” when referring to undocumented immigrants. “Someone who crosses our borders illegally is here illegally,” McCain rebutted. “You can call it whatever you want to, but it’s illegal. I think there’s a big difference between someone who does something that’s illegal and someone who’s undocumented. I’ll continue to call it illegal.” The Arizona senator got some flak for the exchange, as Latino groups and the ACLU argue that referring to a person as “illegal” is a “dehumanizing slur.” But while McCain was particularly blunt about his preferred nomenclature, he isn’t alone — most of the senators working to draft an immigration-reform bill are still using the term “illegal.”
Though NPR notes that, for some, the phrase “illegal immigrant” has “become a kind of symbol whose use tells you about the political leanings of the person using it,” it can’t tell much about the party affiliation of Gang of Eight members. Democrats Robert Menendez and Michael Bennet have preferred “undocumented immigrants” for years, but when discussing the Senate group’s proposal in January, fellow Democrat Dick Durbin said, “illegal immigrants already in the United States will be given their chance to earn their way to citizenship.” Democrat Chuck Schumer became the target of a campaign to “drop the i-word” when he used the term “illegals” several times in a January appearance on Morning Joe. Unlike McCain, Schumer managed to avoid drawing widespread media attention by refusing multiple requests for an explanation.
On the Republican side, Lindsey Graham seems to agree with McCain on the unabashed used of “illegal immigrant,” while two other GOP “Gang” members have publicly discussed the need to use less divisive language in the immigration debate but haven’t quite followed through themselves.
In January, PBS’s Gwen Ifill asked Jeff Flake if lawmakers are making a “conscious decision to refer to these people differently.” The Arizona senator replied, “You’ve seen a different tone in the last year or so and you’ll continue to see a different tone moving ahead across the entire country.” Nevertheless, Flake accused his 2012 primary opponent of hiring “illegal aliens,” and last month he used the term “illegal immigrants” liberally in an Arizona Republic op-ed.
Marco Rubio is even more confused on the proper nomenclature. When he was running for the Senate in 2010, Rubio told Univision that he thinks using “undocumented” rather than “illegal” is important. “Well, ‘illegal’ is a term that I don’t like to use, though it is a violation of the law to enter the U.S. with documents,” he said. “They’re humans. I prefer to talk about the issue as ‘undocumented’ because they are people who don’t have documents that follow the law.” Yet, as Think Progress noted at the time, Rubio used “illegal immigrants” in many speeches, interviews, and written statements. More recently, Rubio twice uttered the convoluted phrase “human beings in this country today that are undocumented” when the Gang of Eight’s proposal was introduced in January, but he also said last month that fixing the guest-worker program “is critical to preventing future influxes of illegal immigrants.”
It appears, then, that sensitivity to the “i-word” hasn’t been making much progress, even among the lawmakers most dedicated to passing immigration reform. But perhaps that isn’t surprising. As Representative Don Young reminded the world yesterday, some members of Congress are still struggling with the appropriateness of “wetbacks.”