It's a word that is often spoken these days as if it were a profanity. Many who utter it do so with a snarl. And the very mention of it can instigate intense debate, enormous outrage and visceral reactions that border on the insane.
Think of the most offensive curse word you know and I doubt that it would be greeted with such disdain and indignation as the one now dripping from the lips of angry "patriots" and opportunistic politicians.
That's the word of the day -- and perhaps for the rest of the year -- as municipalities, state legislatures and soon the Congress take up an issue that is at least as divisive as health care reform.
You don't even have to add the adjective "illegal" in front of that noun for it to be the toxic subject that divides a nation, pitting neighbor against neighbor.
From the tiny town of Farmers Branch in Dallas County to the state of Arizona, in recent months we've seen attempts to usurp the authority of the federal government by enacting their own draconian immigration laws.
In the name of homeland security and protecting borders, they have focused on illegal immigrants and anyone of "reasonable suspicion" (in the case of Arizona). Farmers Branch, which has spent $3 million fighting a legal case, recently decided it would appeal yet another court decision declaring unconstitutional its ordinance banning illegal immigrants from renting apartments and houses in that city.
Arizona's Legislature passed a bill requiring law enforcement officials to investigate the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being undocumented -- a law many around the country feel codifies racial profiling in the worst way.
The immigration issue is not going away, especially as more people suffering in these tough economic times continue to look for an enemy to blame.
The illegal immigrant is a convenient scapegoat.
So, to paraphrase President George W. Bush, bring it on.
Now that President Barack Obama has health care reform done and is moving to get financial reform passed in the Congress, he might as well go for comprehensive immigration reform, something many had bet he would delay until next year when there are no federal elections.
The president's party is not necessarily being benevolent on immigration, although there is pressure from Hispanic groups arguing that Obama and the Democrats ran on a platform that included making immigration reform a top priority.
Democrats are feeling a little cocky now and are prepared to dare the Republicans to continue being the Party of No.
The health care bill was passed without a single Republican vote and, although GOP senators had vowed to stand united against financial reform, their leaders are trying to crawl back to the bargaining table after realizing public opinion favors more regulation of Wall Street.
With immigration, many politicians are caught between their ideological bases and a growing Hispanic electorate that abandoned Republicans in droves during the last election, primarily because of the vehement anti-immigrant stance many GOP politicians felt they had to embrace, or at the very least not criticize.
It is way past time that the Congress take up this issue in a comprehensive way as opposed to the piecemeal, emotional "solutions" that call for federal troops and more fences along the southern border, more local and state laws designed to punish undocumented workers and their families, and the occasional roundup of workers staged more for media attention than enforcement.
We need a reform package that takes into account the 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, and that includes some path to citizenship. A large number of those undocumented residents came here legally and simply stayed once their papers expired, many because of our over-burdened and inefficient office of Immigration and Naturalization Services.
Let's be real: There is no way we're going to deport 12 million people, especially considering the added dilemma caused by the fact that many illegal immigrants are the parents of children who were born here. Those children are U.S. citizens.
The immigration debate is nasty; there's little reason to believe future discussions will be any more civil than the other highly partisan political fights in recent years.
Some bipartisan support for comprehensive reform has surfaced in the past, and Democrats are hoping political pressure will be such that at least a few Republicans would have to join them in producing a broad immigration bill this year or early next year.
But when it comes down to it, politicians of both parties are more likely to do whatever they think will help them most in the next election.
That means, on yet another major issue facing the country, we are likely to witness the two parties engaged in what has become an all-too-familiar high-stakes game: the classic standoff.
Our nation deserves better.