Last week the AP, in response to questions from readers, explained why it uses the term "illegal immigrant", despite the fact that some people find it problematic (the "without legal permission" thing is, per their style guide, an acceptable alternative). In the AP's view, it's "simply a legal reality." Kerry Howley, at Slate, takes exception with the AP's reasoning. Her reasoning is that "illegal" has normative connotations, and--given that it's mostly been used in reference to recent immigration from Mexico--a racial dimension. Her preference:
“Undocumented” places the burden on the bureaucracy rather than on the moral integrity of any particular person. That’s the correct position in my view, and I reveal prior judgments when I use the word "undocumented" just as restrictionists do when they say "illegal." What’s bizarre is that the Associated Press, having deemed “undocumented” a loaded term, thinks “illegal” to be perfectly descriptive, sprung from nowhere, privileging no side of the debate. It may be that there is no objective term with which to describe people guilty of being in a particular space without state permission.
My preference, as I've noted before, is "unauthorized immigrant." As the AP says, "undocumented" is euphemistic. The problem with unauthorized immigration isn't that people are forgetting to fill out their paperwork, and there are plenty of American citizens who don't have documents. More problematically (as long as we're already in pretty subtle territory) "undocumented" posits a causal connection between having documents and having rights, which isn't correct. This is America, not Casablanca. It's the other way around. This is also the issue with voter ID--the right to vote doesn't devolve from your driver's license.
As for the AP's preferred term, "illegal immigrant" doesn't have the dehumanizing edge that "illegals" does, and the point about the legal reality of the situation is a good one. There is, however, an objection from logic. "Legal" and "illegal" generally refer to actions and activities, not persons. The AP also explains that it talks about "illegal loggers" and "illegal miners," and that might be okay, because a logger is someone who engages in the activity of logging in regular, recurrent way. There's some gray area here, partly because of the gray area in the laws themselves--as the AP notes, it sometimes uses other terms when a person's legal status is unclear or subject to change--but "unauthorized" still strikes me as the most precise and least problematic option.