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The Citizen

People are not “illegal.” We should know words matter.

By Sophie Brion, MPP ‘12

In a recent class, our discussion turned to the ubiquitous topic of immigration. As per the Kennedy School usual, the comments were informed and thoughtful. My classmates eruditely discussed negative perceptions of immigrants. They pondered what role race plays in U.S. immigration policy and parsed the practical demands of running U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. On the whole the comments were knowledgeable and engaging, with one conspicuous exception: Nearly every person used the term “illegal” in some form or another – “illegal immigrant,” “illegals,” “an illegal.”

When I hear the terms “illegals” and “illegal immigrant,” I wonder whether people understand the harmful message those particular words convey and if they grasp the impact that these words can have on real people. Somehow, I doubt it.

This isn’t the first time that I have heard this terminology on campus. Last year, a professor chalked “ILLEGALS” on the board as one important consideration for a case study, prompting a somewhat uncharacteristic outburst on my part calling into question this word choice. “I didn’t know that there was controversy about this word,” the professor replied.

This response surprised me. I had expected pushback of a different sort, but here was a professor of public policy who was unaware of the negative connotations.

There is, however, both a growing awareness and debate regarding the negative impacts of the “I word” being played out in newsrooms and among advocates and policy makers.  The Associated Press Stylebook explicitly cautions against using the shortened terms, “an illegal” or “illegals.” Journalist groups such as the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) have taken positions against the use of “illegals” and “illegal immigrant.” NAHJ proffers the alternative terms “undocumented worker” or “undocumented person” because both “are terms that convey the same descriptive information without carrying the psychological baggage.”

Why is the “I word” so problematic? First off, use of the term is incorrect. There are no illegal people. There are illegal actions.  But simply being undocumented isn’t a criminal offense; it is a civil violation, like parking tickets. A person may have improperly parked, but we don’t regularly describe people with parking tickets as  “illegals.”

According to Dave Bennion, an immigration attorney and immigrant rights advocate,  “illegal immigrant” and “illegal aliens” “are incoherent terms from the standpoint of immigration law. It assumes the thing that is to be proven: status under the immigration laws.”

The truth is that while a few immigrants may have committed crimes, many more immigrants come to do productive and needed work. Many immigrants attempt to follow the rules of the immigration system, but languish in application backlogs.

Among the many people I have met who have found themselves stuck in the broken immigration system is Idylis.  Idylis confided in me that she fled Colombia with her children to escape poverty and escalating violence in her hometown. She told me that her parents, who live in the States, had petitioned for her but that they had waited for a visa for five years. In seeking a safer life, she and her children would be considered by some to be “illegals.” But Idylis isn’t a criminal, she is a caring and hard-working mother. Painting immigrants who have diverse stories and complex situations with the same brush of this evocative and negative term is not conducive to addressing the very real problems with the immigration system.

When people use the terminology “illegals” and “illegal immigrants” they participate in the dehumanization of immigrants.  The use of these words creates unhelpful stereotypes and detracts from dialogue on policy solutions oriented towards U.S. economic needs, human rights and dignity. The result is an immigrant population at the center of a debate being framed by often racialized and abstract conceptions of who is the enemy and who is the resident. Through this frame it is impossible to separate stories like Idylis’s from oversimplified depictions of hardened criminals.

Ultimately, use of these words contributes to an attitude that creates favorable conditions for ruthless immigration policies and practices that tear apart families and undermine basic human rights, including harmful raids, armed civilian border patrols who hunt so-called “illegals” like animals, indefinite detention, forced family separations, and racial profiling.

Words are powerful. Words that dehumanize, objectify, demonize or mischaracterize are dangerous. Their power and danger is reflected in their pervasive use and subliminal effect and manifests in actual outcomes. At the Kennedy School where words are carefully chosen to effect real-world policy goals, we ought to know that words matter.