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John McCain: I refuse to stop saying 'illegal' immigrant

John McCain will not abandon the I-word.
Sen. John McCain, (R-AZ). (Photo by Cliff Owen/AP Photo)
Sen. John McCain, (R-AZ).

John McCain will not abandon the I-word.

The Republican Arizona senator said he would continue to use “illegal” to refer to undocumented immigrants after he was asked by a young woman at a Phoenix town hall meeting  to stop using the term.

“Someone who crosses our borders illegally is here illegally,” McCain said, according to the Arizona Republic. “You can call it whatever you want to, but it’s illegal. I think there’s a big difference between someone who does something that’s illegal and someone who’s undocumented. I’ll continue to call it illegal.”

Of course, Latino groups and the American Civil Liberties Union have long argued the term “illegal immigrant” is not appropriate because it suggests the person is a criminal or is dangerous. The ACLU has said undocumented immigrants who enter the U.S. legally but overstay their visas is a civil violation—and not a crime.

McCain is a member of the bipartisan so-called “gang of eight,” which is calling for a pathway for citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, contingent on securing the nation’s border and more efficiently tracking those who are already here on visas.

The senators’ plan helps give some momentum to President Obama’s push for immigration reform and suggests that after the GOP got thumped in the 2012 election (71% of Latinos voted for Obama, versus 27% for Mitt Romney), Republicans understand the imperative of appealing to Latinos.

On Monday, Obama called on Congress to “finish the job” on finalizing the immigration bill, adding that he hopes lawmakers will be able to debate the bill as early as April.

“I want to sign that bill into law as soon as possible,” he said.

There are still a number of issues that need to be resolved, including the wages for future low-skilled foreign workers. The Senate recently shot down an amendment that would have prevented undocumented workers from receiving taxpayer-funded healthcare if they are granted legal status under the new plan or are qualified for a green card. Some, including Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, said in a statement that the vote has put “immigration reform in jeopardy.”

McCain acknowledged during the town hall meeting that “I don’t know if we can achieve agreement or not,” adding “We’ve been working literally night and day. And we may not succeed. But the other members of this negotiating team, I believe, are negotiating in good faith. We’ve made progress in a number of areas that I am encouraged by, but there are still areas we are not in agreement.”