How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

The conversation over 'illegals' and 'illegal' immigrants continues

Photo by stay sick/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Graffiti in Munich, Germany, Feb. 2008

The debate this week over using the term "illegals" to refer to immigrants who have entered the country or overstayed their visas illegally continues. And reading the comments beneath a series of posts on ColorLines, The American Prospect, The Washington Post and other sites has been fascinating, a bit like being a fly on the wall at a gathering where a heated debate is taking place among the guests.

Yesterday, I linked to a first-person essay by Rinku Sen, publisher of the online magazine ColorLines, titled “Why I Don’t Use the I-Word – in ANY Form.” ColorLines, which covers communities of color and often takes on the issue of race, has launched a campaign called “Drop the I-Word,” urging media outlets not to use the word “illegals” in reference to undocumented immigrants.

Over the years I've been witness to many a newsroom conversation over what to call people who are in the country illegally. There is illegal immigration, yes, but what to call the immigrants themselves? In general, mainstream media outlets tend to go with AP style, which is “illegal immigrants.” The terms “undocumented” and “unauthorized” are also used, if less commonly. Is "illegals" a term that is used disparagingly? Yes, but then what about "illegal immigrants?" An act can be illegal, but can a person be referred to as such? It's an old conversation, but one that is refreshing to see again as part of a nuanced public discussion.

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