What’s in a name? Sessions harsh immigration language jibes with his policy
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Welcome to the new normal.

Last week, the Department of Justice announced guidelines for a program that seeks to increase cooperation among city, state, and federal authorities on immigration enforcement.

What was notable was the language used by Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump attack on Sessions may point to his departure Hillicon Valley: Trump's exclusive interview with Hill.TV | Trump, intel officials clash over Russia docs | EU investigating Amazon | Military gets new cyber authority | Flynn sentencing sparks new questions about Mueller probe Sessions in Chicago: If you want more shootings, listen to ACLU, Antifa, Black Lives Matter MORE.

“So-called sanctuary policies make all of us less safe because they intentionally undermine our laws and protect illegal aliens who have committed crimes,” he said in a statement.

In his brief statement, Sessions referenced “illegal aliens” three times.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Plenty.

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Aside from the fact that there is data showing that sanctuary cities are safer than non-sanctuary cities, referring to undocumented immigrants as “illegal” is inaccurate and legally problematic. It is a dehumanizing term that offends many Latinos.

 

Sadly, its usage by the Department of Justice reflects this administration’s attitude towards our undocumented population.

It might surprise some people to know that simply being in this country without authorization is not a crime. “As a general rule, it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain in the U.S.,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority in the Supreme Court case Arizona v. U.S. (2012).

This has also been affirmed by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, when it noted in 2006 that “Mere illegal presence in the U.S. is a civil, not criminal, violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act, and subsequent deportation and associated administrative processes are civil proceedings.”

So when Sessions tags undocumented people as “illegal” he is incorrect, because being here without authorization does not necessarily rise to the level of a crime.The ranks of the undocumented also include asylum seekers, refugees, and victims of traffickers — none of whom deserve to be designated as criminals.

In contrast to this DOJ, the last administration used more nuanced language when discussing immigration, such as “asylum seekers,” “migrants,” or “unaccompanied minors.” President Obama preferred the neutral term “undocumented immigrant.”

This is not just a matter of semantics or political correctness.

The problem with Sessions and his DOJ using the “I-word” is that it flouts the rule of law.

All people within our borders, no matter what their immigration status, have certain constitutional rights, including due process.

In fact, no person has the right to label an undocumented immigrant as “illegal” unless they are an immigration judge — not a journalist, not a police officer, and not even the attorney general.

To do otherwise violates the presumption of innocence, one of the cornerstone principles of our democracy.

Immigrant advocates are right when they assert that designating people as “illegal” strips them of their humanity. Consider that we do not refer to convicted felon Martha Stewart as an “illegal,” and for good reason.

Assigning such a pejorative label to her would overlook her roles as a wife, a mother, and a successful entrepreneur, all because of an illegal act in the past. The undocumented among us, many of whom are the most vulnerable members of our society, deserve the same basic consideration.

Although people may commit illegal acts, including unauthorized immigration, no one should be defined by their real or alleged criminality.

It should come as no surprise that Sessions is using such language, given that he was appointed by a president who repeatedly claimed that “illegals” voting cost him the popular vote. The danger is that words have consequences.

Around the country, hate crimes against Latinos and immigrants have risen in the Trump era. Instead of stoking such fears, the Department of Justice should be working to guarantee that all people within our borders receive due process and their full civil rights.

Using the “I-word” only further inflames the tensions around the immigration issue, making any chance of constructive dialogue more difficult.

The irony here is inescapable. Some Democratic lawmakers have accused the attorney general of perjuring himself at his confirmation hearing, and multiple members of Trump’s inner circle are under criminal investigation for matters related to the probe of alleged collusion with Russia.

Maybe people in glass (white) houses shouldn’t be throwing around terms like the “I-word” – lest it boomerang back on them someday.

It is irresponsible and cynical that the attorney general and the DOJ are using the term “illegal alien.” Immigration may be legal or illegal. But human beings are not illegal.

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City. He is also an NBCNews.com contributor.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.