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

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

Graffiti in Munich, Germany, Feb. 2008
Graffiti in Munich, Germany, Feb. 2008
Photo by stay sick/Flickr (Creative Commons)

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.

Some interesting comments have been posted beneath the ColorLines piece. Here's one by a reader identified as Carlos Bermudez:

Language is important. Names have tremendous power. The name "death tax" has done more to destroy estate taxes than any other endeavor. Likewise expanding "domestic violence" to include emotional, psychological and financial "abuse" has been a great way to label virtually all men as "batterers" for not being nice, nurturing or giving enough.

That said I've never been one to equate legality with morality and, hence, "illegal aliens" has never carried negative connotations with me above and beyond that which I associate with "undocumented immigrants." I can appreciate where I would be in the minority on this particular opinion on names though.


The conversation has continued on other sites, including in a post today by The American Prospect's Adam Serwer in response to Sen's essay. (In the essay, Sen linked to a piece by Serwer defending the use of "illegal immigrant" as a "facially neutral term.")

In his post today, Serwer wrote about Sen's comparison in her essay of "illegals" with the word "homosexual" as it is used pejoratively. From his response post:

The comparison isn't exactly right -- one makes a decision to overstay a visa or enter the country illegally, whereas sexual orientation isn't at all a matter of personal agency...But the comparison between "illegal immigrant" and "homosexual" is powerful, for the reasons Sen identifies. It's facially neutral, but you wouldn't refer to your gay or lesbian friend unironically as "a homosexual." Opponents of gay rights, however, frequently spit the word as an epithet, with terms like "homosexual activist" and "homosexual agenda."

Reading Sen's piece made me feel a bit like that serial killer on Family Guy who stabs himself and says, "My G-d, is that what I've been doing to people?" I cringed. I don't know that I've been entirely persuaded to stop using the term, but I'm certainly going to think about it.

And it kept going from there, with this comment beneath Serwer's post from a reader identified as Karen:

I think the comparison is spot on because just like saying "a homosexual" -- or "a black" for that matter -- is dehumanizing, so is calling someone an illegal immigrant. It boils their entire being down to one thing that they did. And really, I don't believe people can honestly be called "illegal".

Actions can be illegal. Certain forms of immigration are in fact illegal. But human beings are not legal or illegal. At the start of this conversation I didn't feel strongly one way or the other, but the more I think about it the more I agree with those opposed to the term.

The comment threads under earlier posts have been equally intriguing. One that has drawn a good number of comments is a post from last Monday by The Washington Posts's Ezra Klein, who explained his use of "illegal immigrants" while being in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. ("Yes, there are illegal immigrants, and yes, we need to find a way to make them legal residents," he wrote.)

Beneath Klein's post, a reader identified as JJenkins2 made the following point:

Whatever we call them, I would just like to stop making the term coterminous with Hispanic. A significant number of "illegal" immigrants are people who have overstayed their (legitimate) visas and simply remained here--some 45% of all illegal immigrants by some estimates.

They are Polish, Irish, Middle Eastern, etc. There doesn't seem to be very much public backlash about these non-Hispanic illegal immigrants. I think we can only discuss the issue dispassionately if we acknowledge the range of people who have undocumented status in this country.

There is also an interesting comment thread beneath a post on PostBourgie from last week that began with the question: "“Undocumented,” “unauthorized,” “without papers” — aren’t those all just other ways of saying illegal?"

The ColorLines campaign maintains that using "illegals" creates "an environment of hate by exploiting racial fear and economic anxiety, creating an easy scapegoat for complex issues."

Whatever creates it, hatred toward immigrants, here legally or not, is out there, as evidenced by yesterday's conviction of two young Pennsylvania men in the fatal hate-crime beating of Luis Ramirez. The young father, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was beaten to death in July 2008.