I have defended open borders for 20 years or so. I have also argued that would-be immigrants are, from a moral point of view, completely free to evade and ignore the laws, and further, that immigrants are free to use violence to stop border patrol or other government agents from capturing or deporting them.
I also use the term "illegal immigrant". When I do so, I am not saying the illegal immigrant in question did anything morally wrong. I am not judging them. I am not criticizing them. I am not endorsing the law. Far from it. Rather, I am merely noting that the sociological fact that we have certain laws in place and that certain people have violated those laws.
Again, good for them! Harriet Tubman did lots of illegal things, and she is a hero for doing them. That she acted "illegally" is not at all a criticism. Breaking an evil law means one did act illegally, but doesn't mean one acted wrongly.
Why, then, do some people get mad if you use the word "illegal immigrant"? I suspect it is fundamentally because they are guilty of a basic philosophical mistake. They think that to say something is a law is to say it is morally good or just, or that there is some moral reason to abide by it. But that's not correct. Even if moral nihilism were true, there would still be things called laws and it would still make sense to say people broke laws or did not break laws. Laws are sociological things. Whether a given law has any moral force at all is an open philosophical question.
If the law prohibits same sex sex, then having same sex sex is illegal. That doesn't mean it is at all wrong. If the law prohibits smoking pot, then it's illegal to smoke pot. That doesn't mean it is at all wrong. If the law prohibits you from being here, then it's illegal for you to be here. That doesn't mean you've done anything morally wrong. When I say you've broken a law, I am not issuing a moral judgment; I am noting that the government intends to enforce certain rules and that you've broken those rules. When those rules, however, are unjust, my reaction is, "Good on you for breaking those rules!"
So probably most opposition to the term "illegal immigrants" come from assuming a very controversial philosophical thesis, which is that X is the law only if X is just or good; or more mildly that is is always presumptively wrong to break a law. There is little reason to endorse either position.
I tried looking up other reasons why people oppose the use of the term, and found the list below. It is not very convincing and demonstrates significant confusion. I put responses after each bullet point.
The legal grounds include
- it is legally misleading because it connotes criminality, while presence in the U.S. without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one;
- it is legally inaccurate because it is akin to calling a criminal defendant “guilty” before a verdict is rendered;
- it is legally imprecise because it implies finality even though immigration status is fluid and, depending on individual circumstances, can be adjusted;
- it is technically inaccurate because it labels the individual as opposed to the actions the person has taken.
The moral grounds include
- the term scapegoats individual immigrants for problems that are largely systemic;
- the term divides and dehumanizes communities and is used to discriminate against people of color;
- the term creates an environment of hate by exploiting racial fear;
- the term affects attitudes toward immigrants and non-immigrants alike, most often toward people of African, Asian, Central American and Mexican descent;
- the term impacts the way young people feel about themselves and their place in the world;
- the term increases the American public’s tolerance for daily violations of human rights;
- the term is a code word for racial and ethnic hatred;
- the term is outdated, offensive, and implicitly carries with it negative connotations.
If "illegal immigrant" bothers some people, why insist on using the term? A few reasons. 1. It bothers them for stupid reasons, and so they should change, not us. 2. It's actually important to use the term so that we can think clearly about things. There are these things called laws. There are actions which count as breaking those laws. There are people who are especially likely to be subject to government coercion because of their past actions or because of how those laws assign a status to them. In order to talk about these people in social science or philosophy, we need a good term. "Illegal" is the clearest and most straightforward word.