Yesterday, the Associated Press announced that it would stop using the phrase “illegal immigrant” to describe an individual present in the US illegally, or who entered the country without proper authorization. This is a great victory for the long history of organizing against the word “illegal” beginning with the transnational No Human Being Is Illegal campaign and more recently, the Drop the I-word campaign, in addition to the many undocumented immigrants across the country who have insisted on defining ourselves beyond the pejorative brush of “illegal” or “illegal immigrant.”
The AP dropping the I-word also has wide ramifications not just for the media, but also for the way we view and treat people. ”Illegal” or “illegal immigrant” is a dehumanizing pejorative imbued with violence and oppression. I have written at length about how “illegal immigration” and hence, “illegal immigrant” came to be part of our lexicon through the construction of true and false immigration. There is no coincidence that the legal history of deportations coincides with the use of more virulent language to separate desirable immigrants from undesirable immigrants, and castigate the latter as undeserving of any civic or political rights.
By painting certain people with the broad brush of illegality, the state apparatus makes it easier to deny rights to persons without papers, and conduct large-scale violent
actions against them, actions that now take the form of workplace raids, detention and deportations. Changing such language then, does help to make it more difficult to castigate people as undesirable and unwanted.
However, this is not just about political correctness. It is also about accuracy. Beyond the sheer dehumanization and violence, the use of the phrase” illegal immigrant” has always been plain lazy journalism. It presupposes that someone is in violation of immigration law without affording the person due process, which is quite contrary to our laws. In my widely-read New America Media article, It’s More Complicated Than Legal vs. Illegal, written last summer, I mention more accurate, legal and less dehumanizing ways to categorize people,:
Overstay: Someone who overstays her admission to the country. An overstay may or may not accrue unlawful presence, and may simply be out of status.
Entry Without Inspection (EWI): Someone who enters the country without inspection or proper admission. An EWI may still be eligible for admission without leaving the country.
Immigrant: A green-card holder whether through admission or adjustment of status.
Non-immigrant: Anyone who is in the U.S. temporarily with legal status but is not a green-card holder or U.S. citizen.
Asylee: Anyone granted asylum in the United States due to past persecution or well-founded fear of persecution in their home country.
These are merely suggestions. As always, I’d err on the side of people defining themselves. I also think it is quite possible to write a story about an immigrant or immigration reform without necessarily having to categorize the actions of people who may be here without proper authorization. Maybe now, news organizations beyond the Associated Press can focus on covering new stories and opinion pieces about the lives of actual people as opposed to painting us all with the brush of a lazy, inaccurate and dehumanizing pejorative.
There is something to be said about the continued raids, detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants, despite the change of language. While it is too soon to declare victory in terms of the treatment of irregular or unauthorized immigration, and the AP will continue using the phrase “illegal immigration” as a way to describe immigration outside the law, this is a step in the right direction.