In my little (and decidedly liberal) corner of the blogosphere, it has now become inappropriate to use the word “illegal” when referring to immigrants.  Colorlines, one of my favorite PB-based blog discoveries, has launched a site called “Drop the I-Word.”  From the site:

How is the I-Word inaccurate – isn’t some illegal action happening here?

The I-Word is used as a sweeping generalization to label people who are out of status due to a variety of circumstances. For example, many people:

  • Are brought to the country against their will.
  • Are brought by employers and often exploited for cheap labor.
  • Fall out of status and overstay their VISAS for a variety of reasons.
  • Risk being killed in their country of origin.
  • Are refugees due to bad economic policies such as NAFTA.
  • Are affected by natural disasters and/or other reasons beyond their control.
  • Are forced by economics and/or politics to risk everything simply to provide for their families.

This language scapegoats individual immigrants for problems that are largely systemic, such as unfair economic and immigration policies. The system itself pushes certain people into categories that are hard to get out of. There exists a backlog of people who must wait years to get processed, even when they are eligible to get papers through a relative. In this broken system, there can be families with mixed status that get torn apart because family unification is not a priority of the system.

There are other accurate words that do not dehumanize, such as: foreign national, undocumented immigrant, unauthorized immigrant,  immigrant without papers, and immigrant seeking status.

“Undocumented”, “unauthorized”, “without papers” — aren’t those all just other ways of saying illegal?  Is it just the use of the word “illegals”?  Or is it “illegal immigrant” as well?

For the record, I don’t like the term “illegals.”  If you’re going to call people “illegals”, let’s be fair and apply it to everyone who has ever done anything illegal.  That would include me, you, Lou Dobbs, jaywalkers, underage drinkers, and almost everyone I know over the age of 10.

But “illegal immigrant”?  The simple fact is that if one immigrates without a visa, or stays after the visa expires, that is illegal.  I’m not saying there aren’t justifiable reasons for doing so, but that doesn’t make it any less against the law.

To me, this also smacks of being overly cautious.  Are we using “undocumented immigrant” because the idea of “documenting” people instead of “legalizing” them is less frightening?  If that’s at all the case, then that means we are allowing the other side to define the terms of reference, which has turned out really, really well in the past, what with the “death panels” (hospice), “climate change” (global warming), “pro-life” (because if you’re pro-choice, you are obviously anti-life), and “euthanasia” (assisted suicide).

Call me naive, but if one side is going to appropriate a term and try to misuse it, shouldn’t we be pushing back against the misuse, instead of trying a rhetorical sidestep? Rhetoric matters- let’s not just give up because the other side has decided to be racist, fear-mongering idiots.

I am more than willing to be wrong on this one, so please, someone make the case.  What am I missing?

School me y’all.


Fur coating and shit.

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  • MMonides

    “Illegal” is just a convenient conservative racial term for “brown people we pay to do shit but don’t admit to”

  • Paula

    Well … this is policing language, so right away I think that it’s both 1) wrong and 2) barking up the wrong tree of the immigration issue.

    To second MM, the dog whistle is about “brown people”, so I agree with the sentiment behind a movement like this that seeks to defuse some racial animosity over the use of that word.

    But, as you exhibited, it only makes people ask more questions about the word itself. It doesn’t actually draw attention to the deeper issues of needed reform and hypocrisy within the anti-immigrant extremism of conservatives.

    If you really care to confront the use of the word, you’re probably better off asking the people who use it unthinkingly where they got their data, whether they know where their birth/INS certificates are, whether they actually ask every person they assume is illegal for documentation, whether their own grandparents came here “legally”.

    I’m half joking, but I don’t really see this campaign being very useful.

  • R.A.B.

    Yeah, I get that it’s fraught social/political language, but this so far sounds like preaching to choirs than curbing offense or meaningfully clarifying anything to anyone. I don’t think it’s policing language, but I think it’s frustrating language — maybe in a productive way, but maybe (I think) not.

    • Nicole

      In my mind, that’s another reason for reclaiming “illegal immigrant”. The people who would use an alternative term are generally not the ones that need to be convinced.

      • Off the top of my head, one problem with reclaiming a term: it can only be reclaimed by people in the community it refers to. The n-word’s been reclaimed, but I’m not a member of that community, so I’m going to say ‘Black’ — I’m also not a member of the communities directly affected by immigration rhetoric, so what do I use? People like Nate Silver — well-meaning people who are down with the cause, who have a big invested audience — stand to do the most damage with a phrase like ‘illegal immigrant’ in their head or on their blog. And imho, that phrase is too charged to say ‘don’t forget you’re using it ironically, wealthy white dude’ and leave it at that. We need a replacement term too.

        Maybe I’m just blanking, but I really can’t think of another instance where a reclaimed term was fair game for everyone. Defeats the purpose, right?

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  • Mary

    Language forms perception. So when you say “illegal immigrant,” people don’t think of the nannies, farmers, construction workers. What comes to mind is the same stock footage all the networks use of people sneaking across the border or someone in handcuffs. How can you have a frank discussion on immigration and the needed reform if this is people’s perception? And if our allies use this word, what can we expect from the other side?

    • I agree with you, but I’m not sure that perception changes when we use the word “undocumented” instead.

  • I actually like this Colorlines effort a lot because of how the word “illegal” has been used to make Brown people America’s enemy. Your right that in literal terms they are here illegally but the rhetoric really does matter here. That word is used to paint a picture that is used to conflate the disgusting wetback Hispanic racial stereotype with terrorism, our ailing economy, and the violence of the Mexican drug wars. It’s the oldest trick and we see it all the time, vilify a powerless and disenfranchised group in order to distract from the systemic problems no one has solutions for. It is not realistic to talk about the Mexican drug gangs and conflate that with immigration while not addressing the fact that Americans consume more drugs than any other country in the world and immigrants aren’t the ones bringing it in. It is incomplete to talk about border enforcement to reduce undocumented immigration while ignoring the billions of dollars in wages paid by American businesses to undocumented workers and the billions in taxes paid by those same workers each year(pure taxation without representation). McDs for example is an “illegal” corporation as is its entire supply chain. I don’t want to call the undocumented that because they are first lured and then trapped to be that by a broken and exploitative system that excuses its own illegality by focusing our attention on the lowest common denominator by calling them illegal. The undocumented are a vital part of our already staggered economy and they deserve a conversation about the broken system that forces them to be undocumented not ostracized as the problem by calling them names.

  • I’m often an apologist for “policing language,” so I’ll bite.

    Language and culture are deeply intertwined: we all have associations with certain words, terms, phrases–often unconsciously. This is how literature and poetry work: symbolism draws on shared cultural associations, and part of what educators are doing when they “teach literature” is teaching students to recognize those shared assocations (which students often have, but not at the conscious level). So, for instance, culturally we think of pigs as dirty animals, which is why calling a person a pig is unacceptable, and all the arguments about how there’s nothing really wrong with pigs, they’re very clean if they’re well-kept, and they’re quite intelligent so it should be a compliment, etc. etc. don’t change that fact.

    So, “illegals” carries the unavoidable connotation of “criminals.” And culturally, even those of us who will argue til we’re blue in the face that a lot of behavior that’s criminalized shouldn’t be, and that a lot of criminals are perfectly decent people, and that technically anyone who has ever driven over the speed limit is a criminal, etc., probably recognize that we *do* associate “criminals” with “scary” (no matter how hard we try not to). It’s not a coincidence that we mostly also associate “criminals” with “dark skin”. I’ll wager that if most people, black, white and brown, are honest, we’d find that the most popular association with the word “criminals” is a young black man in “street” fashion, and that the most popular association with “illegals” is a poor Mexican laborer. We know that those associations are fucked up, but we’re part of the culture in which we live.

    Using “undocumented immigrant” instead, in part *because* it’s a less familiar term, *forces* us to shortcircuit that automatic association. At least for me (and I suspect for a lot of people), “immigrant” has Ellis Island, “our ancestors”-type associations; that is, mostly positive ones.

    “Undocumented” sounds pretty bureaucratic, and therefore neutral. (If anything, the bureaucratic aspect kind of evokes sympathy, which is appropriate, given the complicated nature of immigration paperwork the world over). It “feels” more accurate to a lot of people, especially lefty types, in part because we associate dry, polysyllabic Latinate words (“undocumented”) with neutrality–and we want to make the question of immigration a more “neutral” one, one where people are less likely to leap to knee-jerk assumptions.

    (On the question of polysyllabic Latinate words and neutrality, just look at how most people write “official” memos, or things like cover letters–it’s really, really hard to write that stuff in a natural-sounding voice and make it not sound stuffy and boring, because our unconscious associations are driving us to use language that sounds “neutral”, “formal,” “official”, etc–i.e., unnecessary polysyllables and overly complicated syntax.)

    Anyhoo, so there’s the argument. Presented, as I realize, in a kind of wordy, academic-ish way because I’m trying to wear my “teacher” hat….

    • Oh, and yes–as “undocumented” becomes more common, and if we don’t succeed (in part through changing the language so as to, hopefully, push media types to search out broader imagery than the guy in handcuffs/night camera footage of people running through the desert stereotype), it too will take on those same associations, for sure.

      How that works should be a familiar process on a blog called “postbourgie,” after all 😉

    • Well, she wasn’t saying “illegals,” she was contrasting that with “illegal immigrants.” Maybe it’s the same?

      I also wonder whether the bureaucratic nature of the word “undocumented” might hurt the cause, too. It just reminds people of blank government papers, when it seems like progressives should work as hard to personalize the issue as much as possible. When we think of the people we know, rather than a faceless concept, that’s when people will get on board.

      • That’s true, but there are always going to be people who are affected by immigration but who don’t know any non-citizens (I’m thinking of rural Missouri and Arkansas here), and there’s always going to be a need to talk about immigrants of a certain status as a group. So we do need a term, and ‘undocumented,’ flaws and all, has the most momentum. It’s a lot better than ‘world citizen,’ anyway.

        • Yeah, that’s true.

          But rural Arkansas has changed a lot in the past 5 years, though I don’t know about Missouri. A huge number of new immigrants came up to work in chicken houses and plants. I hope there’s room for change there on an individual level that doesn’t exist on the abstract level.

          • I think rural Missouri’s the same way, but it doesn’t mean the community members are interacting in meaningful ways. This is one of those battles that I like to think is history’s to win for our side… and then Obama deports record numbers of people. I dunno, dude.

    • R.A.B.

      I’m not doubting the proposed function: short-circuiting a faulty association by replacing the label. I guess I’m just pointing out that Lou Dobbs, when he had a show, used to fume about “illegals” as well as “illegal aliens” as well as “millions of undocumented workers” as well as “undocumented illegal alien workers,” and I don’t really see how any of those terms were invoked with more or less vitriol than the others. And I don’t see how you fundamentally alter the debate, bases around some heavy race and class biases and grievances, with a textbook, basic PR headfake.

    • I agree that this word may seem appropriate and accurate description at first. There was a time when I didn’t think it was a big deal. That was before I lived under 287G & SB1070. That was before I had Arpaio’s pasty face on my TV every week rounding up “illegals.” That was before my son developed a fear of going into our barber shop without me, where all the barbers & majority of the clientele were Latino. That was before my daughter practically hyperventillated when she was placed on a sports team with a Latino coach. That was before she said her future husband would probably be white or black, but not Mexican, because they’re all criminals. http://curlykidz.wordpress.com/2009/11/16/black-white-or-illegal/

  • NinaG

    An act can be illegal but not a person.
    I think the campaign is important, especially since ‘Illegal’ is used in msm. The word has a negative connotation and is being used intentionally to create negative images of immigrants. Because of this, I think it’s important to replace it w/ a neutral term/phrase.

    I don’t consider this being ‘overly cautious’ or ‘language policing’; language is an important part of social and political movements.

    • Darth Paul

      I think you nailed it there, Nina.

      I read a very compelling blog entry comparing the US and Germany’s legal systems, and there is a very profound essential difference: Germany (and really most of Europe) approaches criminal cases as a case against the act, not the individual. This clears up a LOT of the scapegoating/vengeance idiocy that might go on in their legal system which DOES go on in ours.

      [I’ll add that Germany’s by no means perfect. Gov’ts are corrupt the world over, but they have the right attitude to begin with regarding criminal justice.]

    • R.A.B.

      “I don’t consider this being ‘overly cautious’ or ‘language policing’; language is an important part of social and political movements.”

      I don’t see what these two clauses have to do with each other, or how they support each other in a way that supports your overall point.

  • Hey Nicole, thanks a lot for writing this. As a ColorLines staffer and as the guy who deletes the racist comments from our Youtube channel, it means a lot to see this getting discussed in a real way. Oh yeah, and everything I’m writing here is by myself, disclaimer disclaimer.

    So then, let it begin:

    Most people who use the term know that ‘illegals’ is racially charged and transparently reductionist (which is exactly why the Lou Dobbses of the world use it). ‘Illegal immigrant’ is not that different.

    Language is very important to those who benefit from dehumanizing brown people; it’s one of their best tools. It’s just due diligence to understand what they’re doing and why it works, and to call it out. And we’ve found that ‘illegal immigrant’ is very much a part of that. Frank Luntz, the dude who brought us ‘death tax’ and ‘climate change’ and ‘electronic interception’ [wiretapping], also brought us this language memo on how to make immigration a wedge issue:


    Right there, point 2. Don’t use ‘illegals’ when you’re talking about people who are sneaking across the border to steal jobs and raise crime rates and destroy America and ruin the economy (yes, those are all confirmed lies). When you push for mandatory deportation and stiffer penalties and everything else that makes life really dangerous and terrible for people of a certain immigration status, Luntz says, use ‘illegal immigrants.’

    It’s a dogwhistle. It’s every bit as good of a dogwhistle as ‘illegals,’ maybe better, because here we all are. The people who need to know what it means, know what it means; it’s a term that’s completely owned by the people Luntz works for. He wouldn’t suggest it if it was otherwise. And its dogwhistle status becomes obvious upon examination; it’s just slightly contrived (nobody talks about ‘illegal drivers’).

    ‘Undocumented immigrant’ isn’t perfect, and it’s not immune to co-opting, sure. But, and this is important to me, it’s the term preferred by the communities most affected by US immigration policy. A few months back, Sotomayor became the first justice to use it in a Supreme Court ruling.

    People who aren’t Congress have limited power to fix immigration law, easily among the most convoluted and damaging legislation in modern American history. For myself, not using ‘illegal immigrant’ is a way to start returning agency to people kept vulnerable by my tax dollars.

    To put it another way: when you say that ‘illegal immigrants’ is your best option after ‘illegals,’ Frank Luntz is in complete agreement with you.

    • R.A.B.

      Again, Lou Dobbs uses “illegals” understanding what he does about class and racial angst in the context of this debate, but he *also* uses a whole host of other terms, including “undocumented workers” toward the same end, powered by the same hatred and biases. So I’m just not quite sure what we’re doing here.

  • One other thing about ‘illegal immigrant’ — it sets up the binary that ‘these people should just come here legally,’ when we all know the system is set up specifically to prevent people from coming here legally.

    • Nicole

      But why are we ceding the term? What do we move on to after “undocumented” gets vilified (because I would argue that’s inevitable)?

      • I’m not sure what the alternative is within the language debate, other than replacing a word with another word. I’ll say that that’s not all this is meant to do — by encouraging people to thoughtfully leave behind certain words, we’re also calling attention to how those words got there in the first place, and hopefully building up people’s defenses against language manipulation in the future. I think that’s your answer to the question of long-term strategy: to fuck over the opposition by making both our processes as transparent as possible.

        • Nicole

          That’s true. Maybe “reclaim” wasn’t the best word choice.

  • Lauren

    I agree with NinaG

    The issue when saying “illegal immigrant” is that it describes a person as illegal.

    actions can be defined or referred to in terms of legality, but people are not illegal.

  • Are you missing something? No. Thanks for spelling it out. This was a great piece. Thank you.

  • My favorite succinct argument is this one by Darrin Bell of Candorville.

    I dislike “illegal immigrants” “illegals” and “illegal aliens” because of the dehumanizing nature of those words. It’s easy not to see that person as someone who is working hard to send money back to her family when you should call her an “illegal” and focus on the fact that she overstayed a visa or snuck across the border. I know “illegal alien” is the term used in legal jargon.

    The same people who champion the use of undocumented immigrant are the same ones who have no fear of amnesty or other legalization. I think that’s a moot point. I doubt undocumented will ever be vilified in the same way as “illegals.”

    By the way, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists has been working on this issue for a while.

    Last, I went to a memorial service for two DREAM Activists and UCLA alumni who were killed in a car accident last spring. At the memorial, my friend Matias, another DREAM Activist, mentioned that Cinthya had reclaimed the term “illegal” on her vanity license plate. I think it spelled out “ylegal.” Some undocumented immigrants definitely do reclaim the term, in a sort of defiant or even playful tone (think, “we didn’t cross the borders, the borders crossed us”).

  • Another thing, in my experience the focus on papers is something frequently mentioned when discussing immigration and status casually in Spanish. I’ve heard family say that cousins were here “de mojado” (“as a wetback”, the term doesn’t have the same sting in Spanish) and “no tiene papeles” (he doesn’t have papers). You need the “papeles” to work, the main reason any one goes through the great cost to get here. My guess is that the focus on “papeles” is brings us back to “undocumented” once translated.

  • Paula

    Hmmmmm. I didn’t quite mean to make this an issue about whether or not there are negative connotations to the word “illegal”. There absolutely is, and as I wrote above, I’m sympathetic to the idea that this is a word that is a dog whistle for a lot of negative ideas about POC.

    But I don’t think that changing the word to “undocumented” challenges any of the underlying ideas, at least not if you don’t understand why “illegal” is wrong in the first place. My general take on “policing language” is that it often doesn’t touch the harmful idea underneath, it merely silences it.

    I get frustrated at the constant stream of media figures who are “fired” for saying “offensive” things mainly because despite the amount of attention these cases get, people in this country can never have a serious discussion about WHY such things are offensive. This campaign to make the word “illegal” strikes me as a similar strategy, mainly because in my experience a lot of people who get annoyed by the “illegal” immigrants don’t know jack about our asinine immigration laws, corporate need for cheap labor, the amount of time, effort, and money it takes to go through the process, and of course, basic American history.

    I think my POV comes from a general pessimism about how people comprehend these issues. I really don’t trust that a change in words will somehow lead to a change in ideas.

  • Josef

    The distinction of legality regarding immigration is stupid. If capital is going to be free to move, which it is in our global economy, then people need to be just as free to move. Anyone should be able to take up residence anywhere they want, and any laws to the contrary are illegitimate. Of course, the onus us still on immigrants to pay taxes and follow other laws – if you don’t pay taxes where you live, then you are indeed behaving illegally, but not as an immigrant, rather as a resident.

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  • Immigration law is complicated, but very relevant to this discussion. A few points:

    1. “Illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” are meaningless terms from the standpoint of immigration law. Arguments that people are using the legally correct terms when they use these words are baseless. Immigration law is civil law, which allows the government to avoid the due process protections that come with criminal charges. If immigrants are truly “illegal,” they should have the full due process protections of the criminal justice system. In most cases, they don’t.
    2. These terms were chosen by nativists years ago in a successful effort to reframe the discussion around immigration to criminalize and dehumanize immigrants. Before you can detain and deport someone who has strong ties to the community and has done nothing to warrant such treatment, you need to dehumanize them. This terminology has been part of that effort, and also a key part of actually criminalizing immigrants on a scale never before seen in this country.
    3. Allies to immigrant communities can help reframe the debate, acknowledging the common humanity of people living and working in our communities, by rejecting the nativist effort to dehumanize people. This means dropping the “I-word.”

  • Roberto

    when a group decides that the time has come to stop using racist language, then that language has to go. when people decide to continue to use that language despite the call of community, then the user is deciding to use racist language.

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  • I think that the use of the term “Illegal Immigrant” is both misleading and factually incorrect- my full response is here. A group of people has the right to determine which words are applied to them. Thanks.

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  • Sandra Wiley

    In former days, the term “illegitimate” child was found to be offensive to the child (human)that was born “out of wedlock”. This became particularly hurtful as they grew and understood the power of labels, as it negatively impacted them on the playground. The person that had absolutely no choice, no authority, no capability of creating or altering their status was in a sense punished for merely having been born to certain people. Now that we are in a Deja Vu state of mind regarding the families that are in the U.S. without docuementation, we should learn from the past. If nothing else, don’t use the term “illegal” for children.

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