Jose Vargas, journalist and immigration rights activist, recently reignited a much needed discussion over the use of the term “illegal immigrant” in the press. At the annual meeting of the Online News Association, Vargas challenged news outlets, specifically the New York Times and Associated Press, to stop using the term because it is inaccurate, biased, and dehumanizing. In response, the public editor at the New York Times wrote two columns in three days delving into the issue, with more to come. In a previous post on this site, Wendy Cervantes stated firmly that no child is “illegal,” with which I could not agree more. This ongoing discussion is about much more than a two-word term.

When trusted sources like AP and the New York Times use a biased and dehumanizing term, even if that is not the intent, we pick that language up for our everyday use. The result is that all of our conversation and thought becomes biased and dehumanizing, making unbiased conversation about immigration impossible. But unbiased conversation is exactly what we need to build a just and effective immigration system and give millions of immigrant children and mixed status a fair shot at a reliable and successful future.

So how can a simple, everyday term be so inaccurate, biased and dehumanizing?

First, overstaying a visa is not breaking any criminal law, and the mere presence of undocumented immigrants in this country is not illegal. This was recognized recently by the Supreme Court, when Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the majority opinion striking down most of Arizona’s immigration law, wrote “As a general rule, it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain present in the United States.” The removal of an immigrant in this country is a civil matter in which federal officials have wide discretion when deciding to deport an individual or not (a timely example of this is deferred action for childhood arrivals, or DACA), but you wouldn’t know it by reading most news articles. Justice Kennedy goes on to state that the same applies to those who seek or engage in unauthorized employment.

Crossing the border without an inspection is a federal misdemeanor, but using this term as shorthand is simplifying a complex situation with a misleading phrase. This is especially true for those young immigrants who are eligible for DACA, also known as DREAMers for the legislation that would give them a path to citizenship. Not only do individuals under 18-years-old answer to a different set of laws than adults, but DREAMers were often brought the U.S. at a young age through no choice of their own. Nonetheless, these young people have been inappropriately labeled as criminals for too long, as well as their undocumented parents whose only “crime” was making the extremely difficult choice to move to another country in order to provide a better life for their families.

The term “illegal immigrant” is also biased. One of its first appearances was in Britain in 1939 to refer to Jewish immigrants fleeing Germany for Palestine who exceeded the immigration quota that Britain set for what was then their colony. Today, it is used to inflame emotions and infer that undocumented immigrants flaunt the rule of law. It was revealed in a leaked document by conservative messaging guru and Fox News contributor Frank Luntz that this term is a “word that works” to instill the idea that undocumented immigrants do not respect our nation’s laws, and therefore allowing immigrants to stay in this country will break down our law-based society. While using this term may seem somehow official, the fact remains that it is biased. Conservative messaging documents acknowledge that, and it’s time the press and general public did too.

Finally, this term is unavoidably dehumanizing. In no other circumstance in the English language do we use “illegal” to describe a person, and rightfully so. We are not illegal walkers when we cross the street on a red light, and we are not illegal drivers when we speed. We don’t refer to people convicted of any crime as “illegal.” In every case other than immigration, “illegal” is only used to describe actions, so when we use it to describe a person it becomes easier to treat that person as less than an individual, which is a dangerous and slippery slope. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel had a deep understanding of this when he stated that “no human being is illegal.”

The abundant use of this term does not make it right. In this country we’ve had plenty of biased, dehumanizing terms in our daily lexicon to refer to different races, ethnicities, mental abilities and sexual preferences. Thankfully, many of these terms have been identified as what they are. It’s time we do the same for “illegal immigrant” and eliminate it from the public conversation about immigration. Only then can we begin the process of building the kind of immigration system that our children and families deserve.