Analysis: Why The Debate Over 'Illegal' Matters

PHOTO: A March 14 rally in support of the New York State DREAM Act in Albany, NY.Ted Hesson/Long Island Wins
A March 14 rally in support of the New York State DREAM Act in Albany, NY.

A vibrant debate has taken place in recent months regarding the term "illegal immigrant," and on Tuesday, the largest news-gathering organization in the world, the Associated Press, announced it would no longer use the term.

The AP's decision, which its spokespeople say is part of their mission to rid their stylebook of labels, will affect thousands of outlets across the country. The AP maintains that "undocumented" is also imperfect, but that editors are pushing their journalists to find less reductive terms to describe the subjects of their stories.

Some pundits and politicians, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, have argued that the debate over terms clouds the more important policy conversation about immigration reform.

However, I believe that that the linguistic debate has actually enriched the immigration debate, forcing many journalists and readers alike to confront the actual complexities of our immigration system as they are, rather than dealing simply in the polarizing narratives presented by the two opposing sides.

Even when the AP released a memo last year affirming that the company would continue using "illegal immigrant" in certain instances, they simultaneously had to explain to their journalists and readers the difficult nuances of immigration status that few Americans likely understand.

"If a young man was brought into the country by parents who entered illegally, he didn't consciously commit any act of 'immigration' himself. It's best to describe such a person as living in the country without legal permission, and then explain his story. There are also cases where a person's right to be in the country is currently in legal dispute; in such a case, we can't yet say the person is here illegally," the memo read. "Some people entered the country legally on a tourist or other visa but violated the law by overstaying it."

What's more, for some immigrants, legal status can fluctuate from year to year, and month to month, depending on visa expiration and approval dates. However, the "illegal" label seems to suggest a permanent, and unchanging identity, which fails to acknowledge the realities it attempts to describe. For example, would we ever describe you as an "illegal" or an "illegal parker" when your parking meter expired? And then a "legal" again once you filled it with quarters? Probably not. It just doesn't make that much sense. Lacking legal status is not a static identity in the same way that being a German-American, or olive-skinned, or a Chicago-native, is. If we're looking to use language most precisely, why not describe the situation, the specific behavior, what actually happened, rather than label a person with a reductive label?

For most Hispanic Americans, these immigration status issues are part of everyday life, because over half of U.S. Latinos say they worry "a lot" or "some" that they, a family member or a close friend could be deported. And so it makes sense that about half of Latino voters also find phrases like "illegals," "illegal immigrant," and "illegal alien" to be offensive. For us, the issue is personal.

A group of 24 scholars, including Jonathan Rosa, an assistant professor of linguistic anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, came together last year to put pressure on the media to change, arguing that "illegal immigrant" isn't even a term used in the legal field.

"The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act defines immigrants as people who have been lawfully admitted for permanent residence, so 'legal immigrant' is a redundant concept and 'illegal immigrant' is oxymoronic," he noted. "There is nowhere in the legal field that the phrasing 'illegal immigrant' has been the norm. However, that same phrasing has been part of certain political strategies," he said.

Indeed, the phrase "illegal immigrant" hasn't been around for all that long, and was first commonly used in the late-1930's to describe Jews fleeing Nazi Germany into Palestine without authorization. Elie Weisel, the Jewish-American Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, warned for this reason against calling people "illegal," telling then-CNN correspondent Maria Hinojosa that it was dangerous for a society to criminalize a person instead of their behavior.

New York Times writer Lawrence Downes argued in a column last fall that the word "illegal" is troublesome because it paints not only the act of immigration, but everything else an immigrant does, suggesting that unauthorized immigrants are not deserving of any human rights due to their immigration offense.

"If immigrants are 'illegal,' then it follows that they don't deserve legal protections. You can do anything you want to them - abuse them, insult and berate them, arrest and detain them, split up their families - because their 'illegality' severs them from any rights. That's the argument used in Arizona and Alabama, and it has the advantage of being easy to understand."

And Downes brings us back to a very important point. Conversations over words like these make us smarter. They force us as reporters and as a public to face the reality that we have an immigration system that is broken and complicated, and which sometimes puts good people in bad situations.

As journalists, we shouldn't only use words that are "easy to understand," we should use words that make sense for the realities we're describing. And "illegal" just doesn't make sense.