Is calling someone “illegal” wrong?

According to Vargas’ twitter (@joseiswriting), they are not:

Undocumented Immigrant is trending. So let’s drop “illegal” and “alien.” No person is illegal or an alien. Follow us @defineamerican.

For the magazine Colorlines, the insidious verbal indignity of being called "alien" or “illegal,” whether unintentional or not, communicates a negative slight towards undocumented immigrants. In immigration law, immigration attorneys and the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) do not use the term “illegal” in immigration proceedings because it assumes a predetermined status under immigration law. Instead of "illegal" or "alien," terms like "undocumented immigrant," "unauthorized immigrant", and "immigrant without papers" are preferred by these immigration reform advocates.

But regardless of citizenship status, Colorlines believes that declaring a group of persons “illegal” or “alien” is dehumanizing because it places the person’s existence into doubt:

The i-word is not neutral. It is racially charged and has been promoted by restrictionist advocacy organizations like NumbersUSA 4 and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), founded by eugenicist John Tanton. Frank Luntz, a Republican Party strategist, recommended operatives promote use of the term “illegal immigrants” in a 2005 memo, explaining that it would encourage an understanding of immigrants as criminals and create politically useful division among voters. With clear direction to use “illegal immigrant,” the shorthand slur has become just as common among media pundits and political campaigns.

Although The Associated Press Stylebook still supports the term “illegal immigrant,” certain journalists and media outlets have endorsed the Drop the I-Word campaign, including The Miami Herald and As Lawrence Downes, a member of the New York Times editorial staff, explains,
“Illegal” is accurate insofar as it describes a person’s immigration status. About 60 percent of the people it applies to entered the country unlawfully. The rest are those who entered legally but did not leave when they were supposed to. The statutory penalties associated with their misdeeds are not insignificant, but neither are they criminal. You get caught, you get sent home.
Since the word modifies not the crime but the whole person, it goes too far.

And yet, on the other side of the debate, the law is the law. The “illegal” of “illegal immigration” encompasses only the actions of the person, not the person. Situations like Vargas may be unfortunate, but the law cannot make exceptions —not even for the millions of undocumented students that would benefit from the DREAM Act. AP deputy standards editor David Minthorn believes that, "the terms describe a person who resides in a country unlawfully by residency or citizenship requirements. Alternatives like undocumented worker, illegal alien or illegals lack precision or may have negative connotations. Illegal immigrant, on the other hand, is accurate and neutral for news stories.”

Regardless of what you believe, Vargas demonstrates that the politics of immigration cannot exist in a social vacuum without moral repercussions. Because the language of immigration often contains the same structures advocates want to dismantle, the fight for immigration reform must both rely on and remake the discourse of undocumented immigration.

What side of the “illegal” language debate do you fall on?

Colorlines sponsors a Drop The I-Word campaign.
  • Colorlines sponsors a "Drop The I-Word" campaign.

Jose Antonio Vargas’ “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant” story has refueled the polarizing immigration debate, with undocumented immigration becoming a national trending topic on Twitter. It’s no secret that language legitimizes and reaffirms social hierarchies of power —the debate is whether or not the terms “illegal” and “alien” are deserved.

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