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No human being is illegal: It's time to drop the 'i-word'

The term "illegal immigrant" dehumanises and criminalises people who are denied the opportunity to obtain authorisation.

Last Modified: 08 Apr 2013 12:31
Tanya Golash-Boza

Tanya Golash-Boza is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. She is the author of Yo Soy Negro Blackness in Peru, Immigration Nation: Raids, Detentions and Deportations in Post-9/11 America and Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States.
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To universally refer to people who live in the country without authorisation as "illegal immigrants" is incorrect [AP]

Language has been in the news lately.

Last Tuesday, on April 2, the Associated Press announced it would no longer use "illegal immigrant" to refer to people living in a country without permission. 

The previous week, Alaska Republican Congressman Don Young referred workers in his father's farm as "wetbacks", although he subsequently apologised for the racialised slander. 

Why is language so important? What are people so upset about? 

The word "wetback" is a reference to the fact that many people who cross into the United States without authorisation must cross the Rio Grande. Mexicans and non-Mexicans use the term colloquially. The US government referred to their 1954 mass repatriation campaigns along the southern border as "Operation Wetback".

In her research with Mexican immigrants, Ruth Gomberg-Munoz found that undocumented Mexicans use the Spanish equivalent (mojados) to describe themselves, even if they had not actually gotten their backs wet in the Rio Grande. Nevertheless, Gomberg-Munoz chooses not to use the word in her own writing, because many people find the word offensive. 

It should not be difficult to see why wetback is offensive. It makes light of a dangerous crossing: last year, at least 477 people died attempting to cross over from Mexico to the US. Aside from that, when you call someone a name like wetback, you are making one action they committed into a permanent aspect of who they are. This critique can also be applied to the "i-word". 

Living without permission 

People who live in the US without permission from the US government are commonly referred to as illegals, illegal immigrants, illegal aliens, undocumented immigrants, or unauthorised migrants. The term you select to describe them has consequences. 

The first term "illegal" is grammatically incorrect - as it uses an adjective (illegal) as a noun. A person could have entered the country illegally, but that does not mean it is appropriate to call them an "illegal". 

The US government prefers to use the terms "illegal alien" and "illegal immigrant". However, the fact that the government had adopted a moniker does not mean that the word is accurate or unproblematic. The US government also uses terms such as "criminal alien" and "fugitive alien", which are dehumanising and politically motivated. 

To universally refer to people who live in the country without authorisation as "illegal immigrants" is incorrect. As David Leopold points out, people who are victims of human trafficking and in the US without authorisation merit protection, not prosecution. 

The terms "illegal immigrant" and "illegal alien" are problematic because they focus all of our attention on one aspect of a person - the fact that they do not have permission to remain in the country. This is problematic because having crossed the border without permission does not render a person necessarily an "illegal immigrant".

You can cross the border without permission, and later obtain legalisation and even citizenship. Just as going over the speed limit once does not make you an "illegal driver", nor does crossing the border once make you an "illegal immigrant" or an "illegal alien". Furthermore, as Professor Otto Santa Ana of the University of California, Los Angeles, explains, the use of the adjective illegal implies criminality, and overstaying your visa or evading immigration inspectors is a civil offence. 

 Inside Story Americas - US immigration reform:
A path to citizenship

The term "undocumented immigrant" is imprecise, as people may live in a country without legal permission, yet have plenty of documents - including birth certificates, passports and consular cards. For this reason, organisations such as the Migration Policy Institute prefer "unauthorised migrant". Unlike "illegal immigrant", "unauthorised migrant" does not have a criminalising tone. If you are driving without a licence, it would make more sense to call you an "unauthorised driver" than an "illegal driver". And, we don't call employers who employ unauthorised immigrants "illegal employers". 

The Associated Press made the decision to refer to people as living in the country illegally instead of as illegal immigrants because it is more accurate to refer to people's behaviour than to label them because of their behaviour. The AP draws a parallel between this discussion about immigrants and "saying someone was 'diagnosed with schizophrenia' instead of schizophrenic". By focusing on people's behaviour instead of labelling them, we can avoid using people's behaviour to define them. 

Here are the new AP guidelines

illegal immigration: Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission. 

Changing our language

This decision by the AP to refer to actions as "illegal" and not people is crucial because it will help us avoid dehumanising language. One action a person committed - crossing the border without permission or overstaying his/her visa - should not define him/her. In reality, it does not. People who overstay their visa may be eligible for legalisation, and eventually citizenship. And, once they obtain legalisation, they are no longer living in the country without permission. They no longer have to live with the burden of illegality. 

Changing our language allows us to see how our laws render people unauthorised migrants just as much as their actions do. It permits us to shift our focus from thinking of a person as an "illegal immigrant" and remembering that we are talking about a relationship between what they did - violate the terms of their visa, and the laws that shape which actions are authorised and which are not. Most importantly, it helps us to remember that we are talking about people. 

It is a big step forward for the AP, and perhaps next the New York Times and other major news outlets, to stop using the "i-word". 

No human being is illegal. The term "illegal immigrant" simultaneously dehumanises and criminalises people who are denied the opportunity to obtain authorisation from the US government to live in the country they call home. 

This debate over language drives home the point that all language is politicised. If you choose to continue to call people "illegal" or "illegal immigrant", you make your position on the immigration debate clear. You also make it difficult to have a logical conversation about the problems associated with millions of people living with illegality. 

In contrast, if you choose to frame the debate around people who live in the US without access to full citizenship, and who must deal daily with the burden of illegality, it allows us to have a conversation about how to move forward and fix the problem - which lies with the burden of illegality, not with the people who came to the US in search of a better life for themselves and their families.

Tanya Golash-Boza is an associate professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. She is the author of Yo Soy Negro Blackness in PeruImmigration Nation: Raids, Detentions and Deportations in Post-9/11 America and Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States. She blogs here

Follow her on Twitter: @tanyagolashboza

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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