December 18 was International Migrant Day, a day that received minimal notice in the United States media.

The United Nations and its member countries have agreed in principle that international migration is a “growing phenomenon” that can “make a positive contribution to the development in countries of origin and countries of destination.”  They have agreed that “respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms of all migrants was essential to reap the benefits of international migration.”

It is bizarre, therefore to read the following headline from Reuters on International Migrant Day: “Ship carrying illegal migrants sinks off Indonesia, hundreds missing.”

What exactly is “illegal” about leaving one’s country and migrating?

Sure, there may be laws about the entry of immigrants into a new country, but as these humans are flailing about on the open sea in a ramshackle boat and nothing more, what “illegal” thing have they done?  They have left their home in search of another. That’s it.

Our global narrative is built on this pattern of humans looking for a new home.  Yet, the phrase “illegal immigrant” is bandied about in the United States as if it actually describes something.

Take a look at the U.S. immigration statute, Title 8 of the U.S. Code, and look for the term “illegal immigrant.”  It isn’t there.  One’s immigration status, at least in the United States, is often diffuse and difficult to ascertain.  An individual can be lawfully present without a valid visa (e.g. deferred action).  One can have work authorization without having a valid visa.  Often, individuals with a pending application for a visa are permitted to stay in the United States, while other times they are not.

When pundits talk about “illegal migrants” or “illegal immigrants,” I hear them saying one of two things: (1) I have no idea what I’m talking about, or (2) I’m too lazy to actually say what I mean.

In the eyes of the law, entering the United States without permission usually is not a “crime” per se, although it may technically be “illegal.”  And yet we do not describe drivers who speed as “illegal drivers.”  It is as if we have attached the “illegal” designation to the person instead of their actions, and the result is that a whole class of people is relegated, both by federal law and now various state laws, into a lower caste.  A shadow people who cannot gain “legal” status under their current circumstances, and yet the risk they will face if they have to return to their home country may be death or something close to it.

International Migrant Day is a good opportunity to stop and think about why we describe human beings as being “illegal.”  As a nation, we have pledged to encourage international migration, while our Congress has done everything it could since roughly 1996 to discourage international migration.