Subsective adjectives and immigration

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An important rallying cry and usage distinction made by allies of undocumented workers in the current cultural battle over immigration in the United States is Elie Wiesel's assertion above: "No human being is illegal." In the quote, Wiesel gives examples of the kinds of adjectives that he feels can denote properties of people (fat, skinny, beautiful, right, and wrong). On the other hand, calling a person 'illegal', he says, is a contradiction in terms.

Here's a more elaborated statement of the idea, quoted from this website 

When one refers to an immigrant as an "illegal alien," they are using the term as a noun.  They are effectively saying that the individual, as opposed to any actions that the individual has taken, is illegal.  The term “illegal alien” implies that a person’s existence is criminal.  I’m not aware of any other circumstance in our common vernacular where a crime is considered to render the individual – as opposed to the individual’s actions – as being illegal.  We don’t even refer to our most dangerous and vile criminals as being “illegal.” 

Now because syntax is my actual job, I am honor-bound to point out that the term 'illegal alien' is a noun phrase, not a noun, and furthermore, that "using a term as a noun" does not mean "using it to refer to a person, place or thing," which I think is what the author above may be trying to say. But that quibble aside, we can see the idea. Laws criminalize actions, not people. Hence only someone's actions, not their very existence, can be illegal.

What are the linguistic underpinnings of the intuition that using the term illegal alien implies that a person's existence is illegal? I think it derives from an important distinction in types of adjectival meanings that I've learned about from the work of my Language Log colleague Barbara Partee. Different types of adjectives license different patterns of inferential reasoning.

Plain-vanilla 'intersective' adjectives like broad-shouldered, purple and round permit you to draw inferences like the following:

John is broad-shouldered man.
Therefore, John is broad-shouldered,
and John is a man.

That is a purple box.
Therefore, that is purple,
and that is a box.

To evaluate the truth of such assertions, you just check whether the subject is in the set of men (or boxes), and then check whether the subject is also in the set of broad-shouldered things (or purple things), and if both check out, the Adj+N predicate applies. The interpretation of the  Adj-N phrase just intersects the set picked out by the Adj and the set picked out by the N.

With intersective adjectives, the content of the noun and its modifying adjective don't interact with each other. Once you've established the truth of John is a broad-shouldered man, and you subsequently  find out more about John, e.g. that he's also a violinist, or a father, you can truthfully reason as follows:

John is a broad-shouldered man.
John is a father.
Therefore, John is a broad-shouldered father.

In contrast, adjectives of the 'subsective' class, like skillful, cannot be interpreted without reference to the semantic content of the noun that they modify. To take Barbara's example, let's say you've learned that John is a skillful violinist, and you subsequently learn that he's also a doctor. You are not thereby licensed to reason as follows:

John is a skillful violinist.
John is a doctor.
#Therefore, John is a skillful doctor.

That is, skillful crucially sorts violinists by their skill in playing the violin, not by some noun-independent notion of what it means to be 'skillful'. That's because there is no such independent notion. It applies only within the set of violinists and picks out a subset of them, hence the term 'subsective'.

Wiesel's intuition shows, I think, that illegal is like skillful; it necessarily interacts with the content of the noun it modifies. The adjective asserts illegality with respect to the content of the head noun, in the same way that skillful asserts skillfulness with respect to the content of the head noun.

This is borne out by the inference patterns of illegal. If someone is farming illegally, you might call him an illegal farmer. But it's illegality with respect to the farming, not anything else. If he's also a musician, you can't therefore conclude that he's an illegal musician:

John is an illegal farmer
John is a musician.
#Therefore, John is an illegal musician.

If illegal is subsective, a phrase like illegal person entails that there's some way of being a person that can be performed in an illegal manner. Furthermore, the noun alien in immigration legalese simply means 'non-citizen'. Being a non-citizen is also not illegal, and the phrase illegal alien is consequently nonsensical–a contradiction in terms, as Wiesel suggests.

There is also a nominal use of illegal. The word illegal is a noun when it occurs with no other head noun around, and inflects and behaves syntactically as a noun. Here's an example in a recent headline from the execrable Breitbart News: "Trump's executive order could mean deportation for 11 million illegals." Here, illegal is clearly grammatically functioning as a noun. It's inflected for plural, as required by the number 11 million preceding it, and it's the head of the noun phrase that is object of the verb deported.

Crucially, like most of the bare handful of truly de-adjectival nouns in English (a psychic, an adolescent, a fanatic) it only refers to people; illegal as a noun means what the noun phrase 'illegal people' would mean. Wiesel's remark thus applies here too: it's a contradiction in terms. There is, thankfully, no circumstance in which being a person is outlawed in the United States. There are therefore no 'illegals'.

In point of fact, in this country, entities with the personhood property are recognized as being endowed with certain unalienable rights. The subsective adjective illegal in combination with alien or person, as well as the deadjectival noun derived from it, is thus both inaccurate and offensive. These uses are intended to introduce to your mind the idea that there can be such a thing as an illegal human being. And it can't help but work. Your language processor operates without your supervision or consent, and it will compose the meaning of that subjective adjective together with the meaning of the noun it modifies whether you like it or not. You'll be thinking there's such a thing as outlawed personhood without even realizing it. It's a dirty linguistic trick.


Postscript: There's tons more to say, of course. One question has to do with why illegal alien doesn't seem to raise an immediate mental question mark the way illegal person does. This may have to do with three things: First, the word immigrant, without 'illegal' on it, shares a lot of meaning with alien in the legal sense. Second, the phrase illegal immigrant operates more or less as it should, in terms of subsectivity; an immigrant is someone who immigrated, and there are illegal ways of immigrating, so one could imagine that someone who had immigrated in one of those ways could be called an illegal immigrant. Perhaps the semantic parallel between alien and immigrant is why illegal alien doesn't so obviously mean the wrong thing, the way illegal person does. Furthermore, the non-legal sense of alien is pretty terrifying and, well, alienating, so the whole evocative package is a perfect storm of linguistic misdirection and pejoration.

What about illegal immigrant itself? If it denotes, as intended, 'a person who immigrated illegally', are there any issues with using that phrase? In fact there are, though the reasons are more about accuracy, justice and consideration, not linguistics, and have been discussed many many times by people much more qualified and informed than me. In regards accuracy, about 40% of the undocumented or unauthorized residents of the US are people who came in legally, but overstayed their visas. They did not enter the country illegally, and in fact haven't committed any crime, because a visa overstay is a civil infraction, not a criminal one. Calling all undocumented residents 'illegal immigrants' thus judges 40% of them guilty of a crime they haven't committed. It is perhaps also worth remarking that our legal system is centered on the idea that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty; and the phrase illegal immigrant works directly against that principle, when applied to specific people who haven't been tried yet. For these reasons, undocumented residents and allies find illegal immigrant problematic as well. Here's a reflective discussion by Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker about it; in the end, he chooses to opt in the future for more considerate usages. 

Anyway, I really encourage you all to get educated about this issue. For example, before doing some homework for this post, I didn't understand the special nature of 'status offenses', and the reasons why our courts look on them with heightened scrutiny. In any case, if you made it this far, now you have another way to explain to the well-meaning but unthinking user of illegal alien, illegal person or illegals why they should think about changing their usage. You can bring up subsectivity in adjective meaning. That ought to change the topic pretty quickly.

Many thanks to Art Torrance, Barbara Partee and Megan Figueroa for helping me with this post! But all flaws, inaccuracies and inadequacies are entirely my own.


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