Protesters march across New York's Brooklyn Bridge in July 2010 seeking the repeal of an Arizona immigration law.

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Story highlights

Activists say that using "illegal" to define people can dehumanize them

Others say it's the right word for the right description

Word choice and policy are under scrutiny in the immigration debate

And there's not always an obvious partisan divide

CNN  — 

There’s the N-word and the F-word: euphemisms for offensive terms many know but most of us would never consider using in polite company. Now, there’s another word activists are hoping to banish from public discussion: “illegal,” as in “illegal immigrant.”

So far, the campaign to “Drop the I-Word” has had limited success, but that could change with immigration overhaul high on the president’s to-do list and with both sides plotting strategies and how to get their point across.

Opponents of the term “illegal immigrant” find various things wrong with it: They say it’s technically wrong, offensive and is used to apply to people who may not even want to stay in the United States permanently, so they’re not true immigrants.

The term is an oxymoron, said Jonathan Rosa, an assistant professor of linguistic anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“It isn’t a legal concept, which is why you don’t hear judges and lawyers using this terminology in the law. The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act defines immigrants as people who have been lawfully admitted for permanent residence,” said Rosa. “There’s no such thing as an ‘illegal immigrant,’ because if you are an immigrant, you’re already legal.”

Opinion: Why ‘illegal immigrant’ is a slur

But the issue is much more than grammatical. As in all arguments, the very words we choose can have an impact. Think of “pro-life” and “pro-choice” in the debate over abortion, or how people who once called for “gun control” now favor “gun violence prevention.”

Journalist turned immigrant activist Jose Antonio Vargas, a supporter of the Drop the I-Word campaign, argues that using the term “illegal immigrant” to describe people is a racially charged tactic that skews the immigration debate and fuels hate and violence.

Vargas, who was sent from the Philippines as a child to join his grandparents in California, said at a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration how he felt when he was called “illegal.”

“I am the only one in my extended family of 25 Americans who is undocumented,” he said. “When you inaccurately call me ‘illegal,’ you’re not only dehumanizing me, you’re offending them. No human being is illegal.”

Vargas, who “came out” as an undocumented immigrant in a June 2011 essay in The New York Times Magazine, helped support the Drop the I-Word campaign to eliminate what it calls a “dehumanizing slur” from general use.

The argument is that the word “illegal” becomes dehumanizing when it brands an entire person, rather than an action they have taken. Opponents prefer a more specific word like “undocumented” be applied if it’s needed at all.

CNN contributor Charles Garcia summed up his view in a column last year: “In this country, there is still a presumption of innocence that requires a jury to convict someone of a crime. If you don’t pay your taxes, are you an illegal? What if you get a speeding ticket? A murder conviction? No. You’re still not an illegal. Even alleged terrorists and child molesters aren’t labeled illegals.”

“By becoming judge, jury and executioner, you dehumanize the individual and generate animosity toward them,” Garcia wrote for CNN.

There isn’t a clear partisan divide on this. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who supports updating immigration laws, tends to use the word “undocumented.” But his Democratic colleague Sen. Chuck Schumer, who with Rubio and six others have authored new immigration legislation plans, called undocumented immigrants “illegals” on a recent appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

“Senator Schumer, even Senator Marco Rubio is using ‘undocumented’ these days. Get with the program,” Latino Rebels posted on their site, “and let us know when you issue your statement explaining your insensitivity.”

“There is certainly a more widespread awareness that terminology is contentious and part of the overall political battle for immigration reform,” said Lina Newton, Ph.D., associate professor of political science at Hunter College and author of “Illegal, Alien, or Immigrant: The Politics of Immigration Reform.”

Newton said Rubio’s use of “undocumented” instead of “illegal” was a way to distinguish himself and part ways with conservative Republicans on the subject.

“Regardless of where editors and reporters stand, public officials stand, I would say that people that are aware that these terms, like “illegals,” “illegal immigrants” or “undocumented,” are politically laden,” Newton said. “How you use them will send a strong signal about where you stand politically on the issue.”

That was widely seen to be the case with Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. He talked of “illegals” and promoting “self-deportation” in a way that was seen as off-putting to Latino voters, who favored President Obama over Romney by 71% to 27%.

Of course, undocumented immigrants cannot vote, but many have close ties with Latino citizens, the Pew Research Hispanic Center found, who see deportation and rights for people brought to this country as children as a personal issue.

But there isn’t agreement among all Latinos.

Ruben Navarrette, a contributor to who writes frequently on immigration and issues affecting Latinos, vouched for the use of the “illegal” terminology.

“Immigration law is based in civil law, and that’s why those who break it get deported and not imprisoned,” he wrote, “But these people are still lawbreakers, and – by definition – illegal immigrants.”

“The phrase is accurate. It’s the shoe that fits. It’s reality. And, as is often the case with reality, it’s hard for some people to accept.”

There are certainly many who refuse to accept the term “illegal,” and who are fighting it.

It’s not only unfair, it can be dangerous if it creates a racial stereotype that all Hispanics in the United States are viewed as “illegal” or lesser, the advocates behind Drop the I-Word say.

FBI statistics show hate crimes against Latinos made up 66% of the violence based on ethnicity in 2010, up from 45% in 2009. Marcelo Lucero, a 37-year-old Ecuadoran immigrant, became a victim of such a hate crime in 2008 when he was stabbed to death on Long Island by a group of teens who were quoted as saying, “Let’s go find some Mexicans to f— up.”

Words matter and can help to form opinions. A national survey of non-Latinos last year by Latino Decisions and the National Hispanic Media Coalition found far more negative views of Latinos when they were described as “illegal” than when the “undocumented” label was applied.

And that explains why campaigns like Drop the I-Word target mass-media organizations that speak to millions of people. And why they’re celebrating this week after The Associated Press, a news agency that supplies stories to newspapers, websites and organizations around the world, announced it is changing its policy.

The AP had considered “illegal immigrant” the best way to describe someone in a country without permission, but rewrote its stylebook in what it said was a broader effort to cut out labels. It will now tell users that ” ‘illegal’ should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

The New York Times, the other main focus of Drop the I-Word advocates, is also reconsidering its language.

Other media outlets, including CNN, NBC News, The Huffington Post, ABC News/Univision, and Fox News Latino, already have a different lexicon.

CNN prefers the term “undocumented immigrant” when referring to an individual. The network doesn’t use the terms “illegal” or “illegals” as nouns but considers it fine to use the term “illegal immigration” to discuss the issue.

Whether or not language in this instance will lead to social change, of course, remains to be seen. One advocacy group, Americans for Legal Immigration, said it would “compensate” for the AP’s change by now using “illegal invaders” instead of “illegal immigrants” in its releases – an indication perhaps that the issue of immigration remains contentious in the United States, the world’s top destination for immigrants and where 13% of us were born outside the country.

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