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Opinion

Do you call your grandparents 'aliens'?

Immigrants would rather not be called aliens, either. Terms like 'illegal immigrant' foster a hateful climate for all immigrants and Hispanics. The term isn't just derogatory and damaging, it's imprecise and often inaccurate. Changing it isn't about political correctness, but political necessity.

By Raul A. Reyes / March 11, 2011



New York

Rep. Phil Gingrey (R) of Georgia is no stranger to the illegal immigration issue. Recently, he was on a “fact-finding mission” to the US-Mexican border, where he defended his tough policies. “It’s not xenophobia on my part,” he said. “If I had to choose from immigrants across the globe, my favorite alien would be our Hispanic and Latino residents coming from across the Southern border.”

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Being Latino, I rolled my eyes. Though I understand the point Mr. Gingrey was trying to make, did he have to say “my favorite alien?” It reminded me of that old TV show “My Favorite Martian.” Most immigrants would rather not be called “aliens,” since the word carries a negative connotation. Nobody ever refers to his or her grandparents as “aliens.”

Gingrey’s words illustrate a simple fact: Many Americans don’t know how to talk about the people at the epicenter of the immigration debate. But it’s a conversation we should have, because language plays such a critical role in framing any issue.

IN PICTURES: The immigration debate

Strips a person of their humanity

For starters, I suggest we avoid using the “I-word” (“illegal”). When we call someone “illegal,” it strips them of their humanity. Nobody refers to Martha Stewart as an “illegal,” and she is a convicted felon. The standard should be no different for others. Consider that it is far easier to feel resentment or fear towards “illegals” than towards our neighbors, employees, and co-workers – which in many cases is exactly who the undocumented are. Calling somebody “illegal” criminalizes the person, not the action they are purported to have committed.

Notice I said purported. As an attorney, I have to mention that referring to someone as an “illegal immigrant” violates one of our country’s core values. Under our Constitution, all people – not just citizens – are entitled to a presumption of innocence, as guaranteed by the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth amendments. Only a judge, not a journalist, politician, or even a police officer, can ascertain whether someone is in the country illegally.

One-size-fits-all criminal label

What’s more, the term “illegal immigrant” is imprecise. Of the 11 million undocumented people currently here, the Pew Center estimates 45 percent entered legally and overstayed their visas. The ranks of the undocumented include asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and refugees. It is inaccurate and unfair to slap them with a one-size-fits-all criminal label.

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