Should ‘illegal’ be out of bounds?

Friday, March 23, 2012, Vol. 36, No. 12

If the clue were “hardly licit,” my first answer would be ILLEGAL. But what if the clue were, as it was in the Thursday Times puzzle a few weeks ago, “One caught by border patrol”? Would you think of ILLEGAL? If not, as it crept into the grid while you solved the crossers, would you be offended?

In a article on Feb. 17, Monica Novoa expressed shock and indignation over the above situation to the point of asking readers to Tweet demands for a retraction. Colorlines is “a daily news site offering award-winning reporting, analysis and solutions to today’s racial justice issues.” It’s engaged in a “Drop the I-Word campaign.”

A campaign supporter alerted Novoa to the crossword clue-answer combo. “We called the crossword hotline to verify the answer, because it was just so unbelievable,” she wrote. “A game is the last place for this type of language….” (I wish the Kansas City Star’s readers’ rep we wrote of last week had called the hotline, but I digress.)

“Illegal immigrant,” for which “illegal” is shorthand, is “dehumanizing, racially charged [and] legally inaccurate,” Novoa wrote.

In December, Times writer Bill Keller got complaints about using “illegal” as a noun in an article. Times standards editor Phil Corbett wrote Keller, “I do think ‘illegals’ as a shorthand noun has an unnecessarily pejorative tone, and it is routinely used by the anti-immigration side … It might be worth cautioning against ‘illegals’ in the style book ….”

Keller later wrote in his blog, “Well, vigilant readers, the good news is you seem to have gotten the style book updated. … I’ll resist that particular shorthand in the future.”

Novoa went on to emphasize that “one caught by border patrol …has the right to due process, the presumption of innocence, and a fair day in court … which the ‘illegal’ label denies.” (That assumes the caught person is in a rule-of-law country, something not covered in the crossword clue.)

Novoa said one “who crosses the border without authorization is described by [U.S. statutory] law as … ‘entering without inspection.’”

Even the Carter administration did not use “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien,” which “are incoherent terms from the standpoint of immigration law.”

She said “illegal” has been “normalized, but once we know all the ways in which it’s wrong and harmful, there’s really no excuse to continue using it.”

In a note to me, Novoa said the Times’ editorial policy “is clear that the term used as a noun has no place in its pages. If it was a mistake … it should be retracted. If it was not a mistake, the editor should be informed of and abide by the publication’s rules, and still retract it.”

In conclusion, first, my 1983 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary includes a noun definition for illegal – “an illegal immigrant,” citing 1939 as the date of this usage.

Second, I’d like to hear from readers on this issue. Third, how does one retract a crossword clue?

Hmm, we asked the third question last week, didn’t we? But we didn’t answer it.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at