Open Letter to Ruben Navarrette: Why the “I-Word” Must Go

July 6, 2012

(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.


Roberto Lovato

7 Responses to “Open Letter to Ruben Navarrette: Why the “I-Word” Must Go”

  1. As Ruben writes, even “undocumented immigrant” is not entirely correct. So what if we try “illegally present immigrant” or “unlawfully present immigrant”?

  2. Lou R Chavez Says:

    Not all immigrants are illegal as not all pot smokers are illegal, but all jay walkers do participate in an illegal activity and a person who does not pay taxes is obviously not a “tax payer” which depending on whether sufficient income was or was not generated, the non-tax payer may or may not be partaking in an illegal action.
    A linguist is one fluent in several languages, as such I qualify with Spanish, English and Russian (I’m also working knowledge of 3 other languages, but am not fluent in them). As such, please keep in mind that as a linguist, the ‘rules of grammar & syntax’ must be followed otherwise the rules of man (opinion & emotions) will dictate whatever fads & words of the day.
    Everyone has a right to their own emotions & opinions. Whether one is a celebrity linguist, a-poor-excuse of an Ex-president or an organization of congruent progressives, please do remember that opinions are like assholes & everyone has one. Thankfully, there are rules of grammar & syntax that dictate that “illegal immigrant” is proper usage in describing a person participating in an illegal form of immigration in-lieu of legal immigration. Thank you for your time & effort to edify Ruben Navarrette, I’m sure he also appreciates your effort. Please keep in mind the following words of wisdom: “Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace.” – BJ Sincerely, Lou R. Chavez, MBA USN Ret

  3. “Which comes closer to how you feel about using the term “illegal immigrants” to describe undocumented immigrants currently in the United States? –
    Its offensive 45.7

  4. I have the Solution my dear brothers I myself believe in the enforcement of our immigration laws and we should prosecute any and all who choose to knowingly trespass on soil foreign to them. This being the case I think we can and should embrace the term “Trespasser” I think this term is accurate it describes them properly which seems to be the real offense here in this forum. They are not simply “undocumented” this moniker is also incorrect, it leads one to believe that it is the result of our inadequate documenting agencies to provide the documents they require with no hint of any offense on their part.

  5. Ditch the “I” Words, and the “A” Word Too! | Cafe Con Leche Republicans –

  6. Shimi Says:

    Oddly enough, I read something somewhere recently that Mexico herself has a problem with “illegal immigrants.” I had not thought to ask unitl now, but what are these people called in Mexico? While I do not agree with all your points above, I actually think you may be on to a vital point that has been missed. The problem exists on both sides of the border. Perhaps we do need to improve how we communicate with each other in order to amend the matter. And maybe, that begins by using common terms.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: