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.”
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.
I confess that I have used “illegal” or “illegal immigrants” in my own writing. I did so because writing “undocumented migrant” or “undocumented immigrant” seemed so cumbersome. “Illegal” was often an easier shorthand. Was this my best journalism? And is “illegal” a noun? No, on both counts.
Still, it baffles me that the Associated Press, whose Stylebook is used as a guide by many in the media, continues to recommend the use of “illegal immigrant.” The AP’s deputy standards editor says the term is “accurate and neutral for news stories.”
Beyond words to violence
Yet many Hispanics find the word “illegal” to be offensive and derogatory, since it is frequently directed at Latinos regardless of their immigration status. ColorLines magazine, sponsor of the “Drop the I-word” campaign, maintains that use of the term “illegal” fosters a hateful climate for immigrants, legal and otherwise, and for Hispanics. I couldn’t agree more.
One doesn't have to look hard to see examples of the devastating impact of the hate that can arise from dehumanizing terminology. In Arizona, self-styled "border activist” Shawna Forde was just convicted of masterminding a home invasion that left a Latino man and his nine-year-old daughter dead. Ms. Forde has hoped to rob them in order to fund her anti-illegal immigration militia group.
Not political correctness, but political necessity
I applaud news organizations like The Nation and the Miami Herald for recognizing that “undocumented immigrant” or “undocumented migrant” are the preferred terms to use when discussing illegal immigration.
For me, the best reason to avoid the term “illegal” is that it pollutes an already complicated debate. If we dismiss millions of undocumented people as faceless “illegals,” we are playing into the hands of extremists who would prefer that we do so. But if we remove emotion and rhetoric from the discourse, maybe our country can move forward with a rational discussion of immigration policy. And that has nothing to do with political correctness, and everything to do with political necessity.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City.