Illegal Immigrant: Defending the Term

April 8, 2013

In the wake of the Associated Press decision to drop the use of “illegal Immigrant” from their Stylebook, I have reviewed my use of the language in this blog.  Here is my conclusion.

The term “illegal immigrant” may not be the perfect solution, as reasonable shorthand to refer to a foreign national present in the United States in violation of immigration laws, but it is far better than the alternative that is being provided: “undocumented immigrant”.

Jonathan Rosa, an assistant professor of Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, believes that “immigrant” defines someone who is a legal permanent resident.

A group of 24 scholars, led by Rosa, put out a statement last week arguing that “illegal immigrant” should not be the preferred phrasing because it’s imprecise and frames the debate in narrow terms. “It is baffling to think that [The New York Times] would suggest ‘illegal immigrant’ is accurate and neutral,” Rosa said in an interview with ABC/Univision. “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. 1

By this reasoning, the term “undocumented immigrant” would imply that a person is legally present in the United States but for a missing piece of documentation.  This shorthand does not convey the full nature of a foreign national present in the United States in violation of immigration laws.

I would prefer the term “illegal alien”.  From a legal standpoint, it is more correct and it would end the confusion regarding the word “immigrant”.  Unfortunately, we have dropped the word “space” for the term “space alien” so in common usages “alien” refers to a creature from outer space.  I would concede that this renders that term dehumanized, not because it is technically incorrect, but because of our cultural vocabulary deficiency.  I have discontinued the use of the term “illegal alien”.

Key here though is not the word “immigrant” but the word “illegal”.  The movement pushing the term “undocumented “ to describe a person, or to discuss the body of persons in the United States in violation of US immigration law, is not about replacing an imperfect term, it is all about scrubbing the word “illegal” from the discussion.

So, why not “illegal immigrant”?  Some feel that the term “illegal immigrant” is offensive.   Advocates for “undocumented” say that groups have the right to self-identity.  I would agree that racial, ethnic groups have that right to self-identity and have the right to change that identifier as they see fit.  But illegal immigrants are not a racial or ethnic group.  An illegal immigrants’ only common element is their illegal presence in the United States.  I can understand that someone in the United States, in violation of immigration law or someone who cared about a person who is in violation of US immigration law, would be uncomfortable with the word “illegal”.  But can you maintain your journalistic integrity while backing away from a clear and powerful language because some are not comfortable with the clear meaning that it conveys?  Undocumented is less powerful, it is less offensive and it is also less clear.

The other objection to the term “illegal immigrant” suggests that a person cannot be “illegal” and we should only use “illegal” to describe an illegal action.  One common example given is that you would not call a jaywalker an “illegal walker”.

“If we talk about a child who skips school, we don’t say he’s an illegal student,” Santa Ana said in reference to truancy laws. “We call a person who crosses the street illegally a jaywalker, not an illegal walker.” Linguists George Lakoff and Sam Ferguson suggest in their 2006 paper “The Framing of Immigration”2

This reasoning fails to recognize the continuous nature of one’s immigration status or citizenship.  A jaywalker is only a jaywalker while they are crossing the street improperly.  An illegal immigrant is in a constant state of violation of US immigration law.

The New York Times style guide maintains that “undocumented” is a “euphemism”.  I agree with the assessment.  I hope that The New York Times will stand by that clear statement of journalistic principle.

Immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas’ campaign to replace “illegal” with “undocumented”, which is largely responsible for the reassessment and change to the AP Stylebook, is not about clarity but about shifting the conversation away from the fact that millions of foreign nationals are present in the United States in violation of immigration laws.  Jose Antonio Vargas is making a moral argument that anyone should be able to become a United States Citizen.  He believes that the millions of illegal immigrants are not in fact illegal but have simply not yet received the legal recognition and legal documents to which they are morally entitled.

While discussing as a group of foreign nationals present in the United States in violation of immigration laws, I will continue to use the shorthand term “illegal immigrants” I feel it conveys, in the most direct way, the nature of their immigration status.

Individuals who are subject to immigration law enforcement action will be referred to as “alleged illegal immigrants”.

The subset of illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children will be referred to, when the context of the story merits a deeper understanding of their immigration reality, as “Dreamers” or “children who were brought to the United States in violation of immigration law”.

This brings me full circle back to Jose Antonio Vargas.  Mr. Vargas would like us to call him an undocumented immigrant; someone who lacks a document to legitimize his legal status.   I cannot do that.  It just does not express the reality of his immigration status.  If Mr. Vargas is offended by my use of language, I can only say that I am offended by millions of foreign nationals who have knowingly, and with intent, disregarded the immigration laws of the United States of America.

1) http://abcnews.go.com/ABC_Univision/linguists-york-times-illegal-neutral-accurate/story?id=17366512#.UVzChVeRcxD

2) http://abcnews.go.com/ABC_Univision/linguists-york-times-illegal-neutral-accurate/story?id=17366512&page=2#.UV2SV1eRcxA

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