Immigration Debate: The Problem with the Word Illegal

It's inflammatory, imprecise and, most of all, inaccurate. So why does everyone — from Chuck Schumer to Mitt Romney — use it?

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People wait in line to enter the office of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles on the first day of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program on Aug. 15, 2012

What part of “illegal” don’t you understand?

Add that to the list of questions I am repeatedly asked since publicly disclosing my undocumented-immigrant status in the summer of 2011. Calling undocumented people “illegal immigrants” — or worse, “illegal aliens,” as Mitt Romney did in front of a largely Latino audience last week — has become such standard practice for politicians and the media, from Bill O’Reilly to the New York Times, that people of all political persuasions do not think twice about doing it too.

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But describing an immigrant as illegal is legally inaccurate. Being in the U.S. without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one. (Underscoring this reality, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority opinion on SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial immigration law: “As a general rule, it is not a crime for a movable alien to remain in the United States.”) In a country that believes in due process of the law, calling an immigrant illegal is akin to calling a defendant awaiting trial a criminal. The term illegal is also imprecise. For many undocumented people — there are 11 million in the U.S. and most have immediate family members who are American citizens, either by birth or naturalization — their immigration status is fluid and, depending on individual circumstances, can be adjusted.

When journalists, who are supposed to seek neutrality and fairness, use the term, they are politicizing an already political issue. (How can using illegal immigrant be considered neutral, for example, when Republican strategist Frank Luntz encouraged using the term in a 2005 memo to tie undocumented people with criminality?) And the term dehumanizes and marginalizes the people it seeks to describe. Think of it this way: In what other contexts do we call someone illegal? If someone is driving a car at 14, we say “underage driver,” not “illegal driver.” If someone is driving under the influence, we call them a “drunk driver,” not an “illegal driver.” Put another way: How would you feel if you — or your family members or friends — were referred to as illegal?

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Each newsroom abides by its own stylebook — how it defines and uses words and phrases. In the past few years, a small handful of news organizations have ceased using the term illegal immigrant in favor of undocumented immigrant. The Miami Herald, for example, began doing so as early as 2003 and instituted it paperwide a few years later. The Huffington Post — one the largest general news sources in the U.S. — followed suit in 2008. Two years later, the San Antonio Express-News amended its policy. That was around the same time a campaign called Drop the I-Word was launched, targeting leading news organizations like the Associated Press, whose influential stylebook still stands by illegal immigrant.

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In an increasingly diverse society in which undocumented immigrants are integrated in all walks of life, language belongs to the people whose stories are being told, whose distinct realities need to be accurately and fairly represented to the benefit of everyone. To be an undocumented person in the U.S., after all, is to live a life dictated by getting the proper documents. Immigration in the U.S. is more than a question of legality — it’s about history, about foreign policy, about economy in a globalized and interconnected world.

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I was born in the Philippines, a former American territory, and moved to the U.S. when I was 12. I found out that I was undocumented — that I didn’t have the proper documents — after trying to get a driver’s license at age 16. A year later, my high school sophomore-English teacher said I was asking too many questions and “should try this thing called journalism.” I was hooked, partly because seeing my byline, my name on a piece of paper, validated my existence in a way my fake green card and fake passport that my grandfather bought to smuggle me into America did not. When I got older, my grandfather’s lies became my lies. For more than a decade, I lied about my immigration status so I could get jobs, pay taxes and provide for myself and my family. But the lies stopped — they had to. Like countless other undocumented people, particularly young ones who’ve grown up in the U.S. and call this country our home, I outed myself to be seen as a human being who is more than my immigration status.

Don’t all human beings deserve to be reported on fairly and accurately?

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