Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Quote of the moment: ColorLines publisher on why she doesn't use the term 'illegals'

A sign that reads
A sign that reads "No human is illegal," San Francisco, July 2008
Photo by Steve Rhodes/Flickr (Creative Commons)

"There’s no conflict between honest reporting and dropping the i-word. I use undocumented and unauthorized regularly, as this is a matter of permission represented by a piece of paper. I never obfuscate how a source came to be in the United States, whether they overstayed a visa or crossed a border."

- Rinku Sen, publisher of ColorLines

The publisher of the online magazine, which tackles the thorny issue of race in its coverage of communities of color, speaks out in a first-person essay titled "Why I Don't Use the I-Word - in ANY Form." ColorLines has launched a campaign called "Drop the I-Word," urging media outlets not to use the word "illegals" in reference to undocumented immigrants.

Sen's essay gets at a complicated conversation that has been held in many a newsroom over the years: 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.

The essay makes the argument that referring to people as "illegals" is not only dehumanizing, but that it perpetuates racial stereotypes and fear. From the piece:

The repetition of the i-word in conjunction with images of brown-skinned people, particularly Latinos, popularizes the notion that individuals are to blame for our systemic challenges. It reinforces racial fear and economic anxiety, creates a hateful environment, and increases the American public’s tolerance for daily violations of human rights. The i-word limits the conversations we are able to have about immigrants, their rights and their mobility in this globalized economy.

The essay also links to the opinions of some journalists who have lately weighed in on the term, including the Washington Post's Ezra Klein ("Yes, there are illegal immigrants, and yes, we need to find a way to make them legal residents," he wrote earlier this week.)

In conclusion, Sen poses this question, among others, in regards to choosing which words to use: "What is the effect, intentional or not?"