Language matters. Our words matter, and how we talk with one another matters. We know this, of course: think about learning that some words are “bad,” or how it feels when a coworker can never get your name right, or the time you discovered just how much an insult can sting. Words help us understand the world around us and communicate nuances of meaning and emotion.
As Chalice digs deeper into the issues of immigrant rights, I hope you will join me in paying attention to language. Specifically, I encourage us to leave behind the phrase “illegal immigrants” and the word “illegal” used as a noun, because this language is dehumanizing and stings like an insult. (Instead, I join advocates and journalists in using the phrase “undocumented immigrants.”)
Many of you know this of course, and have had this very conversation about language with your family members or others around you. I hope this reflection gives you a few new resources for that conversation.
Why drop “the i word?”
No person is illegal. Calling a person or a population “illegal” implies that their being, their existence is illegal. As Unitarian Universalists, we know that every person has worth and dignity. I think we have seen, in political rallies and rhetoric, how calling a person “illegal” makes it easier to see that person as less than human, fundamentally “different,” and with fewer rights. As UUs, we reject this dehumanization.
Selective criminalization. Everyone has broken some law. As journalist Maria Hinojosa and others have pointed out, people who have broken traffic laws, or failed to pay child support, or have not paid taxes are not referred to as “illegal drivers,” “illegal parents,” or “illegal taxpayers.”
It’s not entirely accurate. As I understand it, being in the US without authorization is not allowed, but it’s not a “crime” under federal criminal law. Entering the country illegally is a crime, but a person who has, for example, overstayed a visa, is subject to civil immigration proceedings, not criminal court. Putting people into the category of “criminal” contributes to the dehumanization, stereotyping, and fear of immigrants.
The community asks us to. From our partners at the North County Immigration Task Force to the national “Words Matter” campaign, immigrant communities and activists overwhelmingly experience “illegal” as offensive and have asked journalists, politicians, and the public to use other language when describing the people who are in the US without authorization.
Let’s be good partners and work to drop “the i-word.”
Maria Hinojosa’s 2012 Ware Lecture at the UUA General Assembly
UUA Statement on Immigration as a Moral Issue
ACLU Issue Brief: Criminalizing Undocumented Immigrants
“No human being is illegal,” The Guardian, December 6, 2015