The Power of the Word “Illegal”

[Op Ed to the Courier Journal, April 2008]

On March 30th, 2008 the Courier Journal ran an article about the terms we use to refer to certain groups of people, to each other. We appreciate the CJ and Ms. Platt for raising this important issue and candidly exploring the power of words, particularly in the media. All of us use words without questioning their origin, context, or implications. Words communicate history, cultural context, generational variances, and, of course, bias and prejudice. Media not only introduces and spreads the use of terminology; it also keeps terms alive or buries them. Language, like anything else in life, evolves. There are many words that have fortunately been abandoned by media. Words that are derogatory in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender were, however, at one time commonly printed and read in newspapers across the country, and in our local community as well.

“Uncertainty and fear about immigrants, about people who are different, has a history as old as our Nation.” Luis Gutierrez

One term that continues to appear in mainstream media outlets, despite the strong opposition from various groups, is ‘illegal immigrant’. This term is objectionable for many reasons, all of which have to do with the fact that the term qualifies an entire person, rather than an act. Indeed, we end up using this term as short-hand for an entire community, and then consciously or unconsciously, make assumptions about who looks like an ‘illegal’. We profile our neighbors, children at school, people we encounter out in public. We ascribe behaviors, attitudes, and personality types to ‘illegals’, as if the act of overstaying a visa or crossing a border without appropriate documents transformed an entire person into a uni-dimensional being. We rid these individuals of their story, of their reasons and motivations for taking such a chance. We wash our hands of responsibility for the policies and conditions that make such dangerous and unprotected immigration possible. The use of the term “illegal” immigrants is designed to dehumanize a group of human beings.

While it is true that the Associated Press Style Book does use the term illegal immigrant, not all mainstream media outlets abide by this selection. In fact, in 1994 at the Unity Convention, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists , the Asian American Journalists Association, and the Native American Journalists Association issued a joint statement on the use of the term ‘illegal’. In 2006, these same groups recommended using “undocumented immigrant” and avoiding the term “illegal” as a label.

The same reasons the AP quoted for abandoning the use of the terms ‘retarded’ and ‘homosexual’ apply to illegal immigrant: the term is offensive to many people, it has pejorative connotations, and if the AP spoke to many individuals and immigrant groups, it would find that they have abandoned this term and instead use undocumented immigrant. The reason given by the AP for continuing to use the term, that it is widely understood, holds no water. There are many terms that, while easily understood by the majority of the population, are absolutely inappropriate. Further, it may be time for the AP to ask themselves what it is exactly that people understand when the term ‘illegal immigrant’ is used.

Given the rise of hate crimes in our country, particularly those aimed at immigrants (Latinos in particular), it may be a matter of social responsibility and principle to opt out of the media status quo and forge ahead with terminology that is more accurate, respectful, and can carry us into a future where diversity is a strength. At a time when building relationships across lines of difference, both within our own country and beyond national borders, is recognized as central to addressing the great challenges before us as peoples, the term ‘illegal’ blocks dialogue rather than opening it up. It is our hope in this continuing dialogue with our local media, and the broader community, that a term that is found offensive by so many in our local community will be abandoned and the space for broader, and more inclusive, dialogue expanded.

Signed and supported by:

Adelante Hispanic Achievers
Al Dia en America (newspaper)
American Civil Liberties Union- KY
Americana Community Center
Arcoiris Latino
Diversity Consultants
Fairness Campaign
Georgetown-Scott County Hispanic Initiative
Hispanic/Latino Coalition of Louisville
Hoy en Las Americas (newspaper)
Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression
Kentucky Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights
Kentucky Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
Kentucky Feminist Justice
Kentucky Foundation for Women staff
Kentucky Jobs With Justice
La Casa Latina Catholic Worker
Lexington Hispanic Association
Louisville Metro Human Relations Commission
Metropolitan Housing Coalition
Planned Parenthood of Kentucky

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