Why I'll Continue to Say 'Illegal Immigrant'

A controversial new campaign called Drop the I-Word seeks to eliminate the use of the word “illegal” in discussions about immigration. Sponsored by the website ColorLines, and its publisher, the Applied Research Center, Drop the I-Word’s website says using the term “illegal” to describe undocumented immigrants “creates an environment of hate by exploiting racial fear and economic anxiety, creating an easy scapegoat for complex issues, and OK-ing violence against those labeled with the word.”

Though Drop the I-Word started just this month, Iván Román, executive director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, has been fighting to eliminate “illegal” for years, specifically in mass-market newspapers and websites.

“We have urged news media many times to stop using the term illegal aliens,” he says. “And that’s mostly died off. We also specifically have targeted the use of the term illegals as a noun. First of all, it’s not even grammatically correct. But it’s also pejorative. It’s just appropriating the rhetoric of the right, or the people who are anti-immigrant.”

Currently, the official AP stylebook says writers should use “illegal immigrant” when describing a transplant to the United States who arrived here through unofficial channels. But Román disagrees with even that term, saying it “dehumanizes” certain immigrants. “It’s very easy to not give people a voice when you call them an illegal,” he says. “For example, you don’t call a thief an illegal taker of whatever; you call them a thief. These people are human beings and this is not a felony; it’s a civil violation. By [calling them illegal immigrants] you’re dehumanizing them and you’re equating them with criminality. And when you do that, people tend to not give them the credibility, the respectability or the voice they should have in this debate.” Instead, Román says he’d prefer news outlets use the term “undocumented immigrant” or “undocumented worker.”


Personally, I can understand Román’s disdain for the descriptors “illegals” and “aliens,” both of which are wrong to use for any number of reasons. But it seems a bit silly to hold “illegal immigrant” in the same light. The simple fact is that entering and residing in America via sub-governmental means is against the law. What’s wrong with saying as much?

According to Drop the I-Word, though accurate, using illegal immigrant “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.”


Wherever you stand on the issue, in many ways, I think the argument about the word “illegal” stems from one of America’s preeminent foibles: incorrect public assumptions about criminality.

Anyone even marginally versed in our nation's perverse wealth disparity and prejudiced justice system knows full well that a criminal record does not a bad person make. Unfortunately, for any number of reasons, we’ve made it so that the word "crime" is one-size-fits-all. Whether you’ve raped a child or stolen a loaf of bread, you’ve done something “illegal,” and you’re bad.


I don’t fault illegal immigrants for escaping their homes and seeking a better life in America; it’s very possible I’d do the same thing were I in their shoes. That said, I think it’s ill-conceived to stop using the term “illegal immigrant.” Overall, it’s accurate, far less loaded that “illegal alien” and far less absurdly PC than “undocumented worker,” which fails to account for college students, children, etc.

Ultimately, perhaps a better campaign would be one that sought to remove the stigma associated with many illegal activities in the first place. Not only would that campaign benefit immigrants, it would also help the millions of American citizens who already have been maligned in our inequitable courts.


-Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter