SAN DIEGO - Justice Sonia Sotomayor has injudiciously reignited the conversation over words used in the immigration debate just when the prospects for immigration reform in Congress are holding on by a thread.
Let's focus on what's important. Lawmakers need to find the courage and common sense to break the impasse over immigration in a way that secures the border, provides businesses with workers, makes it easier for immigrants to come here legally, and gives the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States an earned path to legal status with or without citizenship. And it's important to have something that neither political party wants to have: an honest discussion.
But it's not important whether we call those living in the United States without the proper documents "illegal immigrants" rather than "undocumented workers," "authorized visitors" or whatever the latest politically correct term happens to be.
In response to a question earlier this month at Yale Law School, the first Latina on the Supreme Court warned against using terms such as "illegal alien" and said that labeling immigrants as criminals strikes her as "insulting."
"I think people then paint those individuals as something less than worthy human beings and it changes the conversation," Sotomayor said.
Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham lashed out at Sotomayor by insisting that the justice's "allegiance obviously goes to her immigrant family background and not to the U.S. Constitution."
Who's right -- Sotomayor or Ingraham? Neither.
With regard to Sotomayor, I'll agree that "illegal alien" is unacceptable, and so is using "illegal" as a noun.
But there's another term, which Sotomayor did not mention -- "illegal immigrant." That phrasing is fine. Some critics disagree and insist that even this more harmless term "dehumanizes" people and promotes racism.
Baloney. A two-word phrase does all that? Do you know what "dehumanizes" immigrants? The fact that so many of them have been deported by this administration, something that has been ignored or excused by some of the same folks who are up in arms over what to call them.
This isn't about illegal immigrants. I've interviewed many of them over the years, and I've never had one of them tell me that what they are most worried about is terminology. They only want five things from this country -- a job; a work permit so they support their families; a driver's license so they can get to work; the ability to cross borders to visit relatives; and to be left alone.
This is about a bunch of do-gooders who want to go to bat for these illegal immigrants but don't want to sully their hands with the idea that they're defending lawbreakers. So they pretend that no laws were broken.
It won't sell. One minute, those of us who want immigration reform are arguing that illegal immigrants should have the opportunity, via earned legalization, to make amends for wrongdoing. The next, the word police are arguing that the immigrants did nothing wrong?
Republicans in Congress who are willing to grant legal status to illegal immigrants aren't asking for much. But one thing they do need -- and which figured prominently in the list of principles they recently released -- is an admission of wrongdoing by illegal immigrants who want to get right with the law.
Insisting that no law was broken and that those who are here illegally are really just "undocumented" or "unauthorized" will kill reform for sure.
Ingraham missed most of this, preferring instead to simply zing Sotomayor for allegedly being too wedded to "her immigrant family background." What immigrant family background is that? Apparently, geography is not the host's strong suit. Sotomayor is Puerto Rican. As were both of her parents. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, not immigrants.
Does Ingraham think that Sotomayor is Mexican? Salvadoran? Peruvian? Does she think that 53 million Latinos in the United States have the same beliefs and immigrant backgrounds? Really?
And what about implying that Sotomayor believes as she does because of some kind of "allegiance"? Do white Americans have to put up with accusations like that, or are they reserved for minorities? Whether or not Ingraham agrees with Sotomayor on terminology, she should at least have the professionalism and courtesy to assume that the justice's point of view is coming as much from her head as it is from her heart.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Americans apparently aren't ready to sort out how we should talk about illegal immigrants. We don't even know how to talk to one another.
Ruben Navarrette is a nationally syndicated columnist.