Just days ago, the student government at UCLA approved a resolution condemning the use of the term “illegal” when describing immigrants who enter the United States without permission. The resolution claims the word influences the treatment of immigrants, saying:
We are aware that certain racially derogatory language used in media, political discourse and other institutional settings has historically bolstered the foundation for racially harmful actions including racial profiling practices, punitive policies targeting socially marginalized groups, hate crimes and violence.
This isn’t the first time the term has inspired public debate. Back in January, NPR’s political blog noted that Obama and a few Senators have begun purposely avoiding the word “illegal” in their speeches about immigration reform. While there are plenty of conservatives who insist on still using the term, the issue isn’t clearly divided along party lines. The conservative Hispanic Leadership Network has asked Republicans in Congress to avoid using the loaded term. And even Fox News Latino found that 46% of Latino voters find the term offensive in a recent poll.
Politicians and universities aren’t the only ones shying away from the “I-word.” Major news organizations like the Associated Press and publications like USA Today have dropped the term from their style guides in an attempt to provide more sensitive, objective coverage of immigration issues. (Notably, the New York Times has not followed suit.) Instead of saying “illegal immigrant,” journalists are now encouraged to use the terms “undocumented” or “unauthorized,” and to use more specific language when describing how someone entered the country, such as “he entered the US without a visa.”
So why is this word such a hot topic for so many? Opponents of the term believe that by calling someone an “illegal immigrant,” we’re criminalizing a person’s very existence rather than simply condemning an unlawful action they’ve taken. In a CNN article last year, Charles Garcia explained it this way:
In this country, there is still a presumption of innocence that requires a jury to convict someone of a crime. If you don’t pay your taxes, are you an illegal? What if you get a speeding ticket? A murder conviction? No. You’re still not an illegal. Even alleged terrorists and child molesters aren’t labeled illegals.
By becoming judge, jury and executioner, you dehumanize the individual and generate animosity toward them. New York Times editorial writer Lawrence Downes says “illegal” is often “a code word for racial and ethnic hatred.”
He goes on to point out that the word has an ugly history — the first use of the term “illegal immigrant” was in 1939 as a British slur against Jews who were fleeing from the Nazis and entering other countries without authorization. Given where the term comes from, it might be worth dropping it based on historical grounds alone.
What do Care2 readers think? Should journalists and public figures drop the I-word?
Photo credit: Doug Geisler