(This is a response to this article by Ruben Navarrette, who defends use of the term “illegal immigrant.)
Ruben Navarrette, we agree on more than a few things, but not on this one. There are multiple reasons to stop using this “illegal immigrant” term, not least of which are grammar and usage, and basic respect for people who don’t like being called “illegal immigrants.”
If, as your article states, you really “also prefer not to degrade the English language”, then you need to stop using the term “illegal immigrant.” The term is grammatically incorrect and illogical. I too make a living by using words. We don’t say “illegal jay walker,” we don’t refer to people as “illegal pot smokers,” we don’t call someone who doesn’t pay their taxes an “illegal taxpayer.” There are no other instances where the term “illegal” is used to designate a person in this way, except “illegal immigrant.” None. And then there’s the issue of degrading not just the language, but actual flesh and blood and feeling people.
I’ve spoken with and interviewed linguists like Otto Santana, Ana Maria Zentella and other lovers of language, including those who were involved in helping remove sexist, homophobic and other racist language from usage. ALL of them agree: the term “Illegal immigrant” is dehumanizing, racist language.
President Jimmy Carter removed the term “illegal immigrant” from official use by the US government precisely because his administration deemed the term problematic, as have governments around the world, many of whom use some variant of the French term “sans papier,” meaning “without papers.” Journalistic organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, UNITY Journalists of color (largest journalist organization in the U.S.) and even Fox News Latino have joined journalist organizations and individual across the country in rejecting the I-word and adopting other, more appropriate language. Many have also joined the Drop the I-Word campaign.
As a writer, you must be aware that language use is a choice, often a political choice laden with power relations and other influences. The “I-word” falls squarely into this category as growing numbers of immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, demanding journalists and policymakers and other public figures stop using language they feel dehumanizes and diminishes them.
As a journalist, you are, no doubt, also aware that extremist, anti-immigrant foundations have invested millions of dollars to mainstream the term “illegal immigrant” and its variants. Given these and other facts, use of this racist, dehumanizing term is simply indefensible; Defending its use as some unpalatable “truth” does not, imho, reflect well on you, and I say this as someone who often agrees with and defends you.
You’ve also noted, I’m sure, how terms like “illegals,” “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrants” show up on the placards and in the beatings of racists I know you oppose. There have not been any “illegal immigrant”placards at any immigrant rights march I know of in all my experience. Most of us who defend immigrants defend them on the linguistic front as well.
Lastly, I don’t know a single undocumented person who likes the term. As with the “N” word, or the “F” word in the queer community or the “C” word in the disabled community, when a group of people impacted negatively by a term deems it time to end the use of such language, then people of conscience should rally behind them. So, I implore you to Drop the I-word.