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Citizenship

Stop using the word “illegal” to describe immigrants

A Modest Mouse song includes the line, “Language is the liquid, that we’re all dissolved in, great for solving problems, after it creates the problem,” which captures a primary dimension of language: its subjectivity, duality, ambiguity, slipperiness.

Language hurts people, but it can also heal. It’s used to divide people just as often as it’s used to bring people together. Groupings such as “global citizens” and “humanity” unite everyone, but just about every other grouping you can think of separates just as much as it joins.

The US is a country made up of people from all over the world, but it has struggled since its inception (like many countries) to regard newcomers (or indigenous people or women) as part of the same humanity, instead tending to cast whole groups as the “other” and treating them with disdain, ostracization or oppression.

For as long as I can remember, Latino immigrants who came to this country for a chance at a better life, before getting “ok’d” by our dismal and outdated immigration system, have been called “illegal immigrants,” or “illegals” and “illegal aliens” by the especially callous.

You may be thinking, “well, technically they’re living in this country illegally. They’re not paying income taxes, they don’t have technical permission to work, they don’t have permission to vote or other similar rights, so ‘illegal’ is merely a technical term and, therefore, accurate.”

Few words are “merely technical.” Words have context and consequence, they echo historically, they’re imbued with meaning by both speaker and listener, they guide thought and action and can trigger or contain emotion.

The word “illegal” nullifies the humanity, the individuality of the person it’s used to describe. It might evoke caricatures of criminals and outlaws for some, like it does for Donald Trump. It might evoke some other stereotype of a day-laborer or “job-stealer” or “leech” who doesn’t speak your language and doesn’t love your country.  

But for most people, I’d imagine, it evokes little beyond vague anger or indifference: why is this “illegal” in my country? Or who cares what happens to that illegal.

The word "illegal" works to completely end discussion and understanding.

It works to prevent people from ever assimilating the facts that first-generation immigrants are less likely to break the law, more likely to start businesses, and are, in most cases, incredibly hard-working, generous, patriotic people who have to overcome tremendous, ongoing barriers to arrive and stay in the US.

The word “illegal” allows people to entirely ignore the tens of thousands of families that are torn apart by a brutally dehumanizing deportation system, the kidnapping and extortion that terrorizes communities and the widespread health problems stemming from lives lived in societal darkness.

The word “illegal” is derogatory and limiting and should not be used. In the past, pretenses of impartiality weren’t even used by politicians, and immigrants were labeled with transparently hateful terms.

But overtime, all the hateful labels of the past have huddled under the surface technicality of “illegal.” Yet, anyone who listens to the subtext of “illegals” when said can still hear the echoes of those toxic words.

A growing movement is trying to stop the use of “illegal” in the immigration discussion, and they’re rightfully gaining ground.

From now on, use “undocumented immigrant” if you have to draw a distinction. Otherwise, avoid blanket terms. Use “immigrant” or “person” or “man,” “woman” and “child,” and then describe their situation. If the term restores individuality and humanity, then use it.


If you think this is just an “American problem” my colleague Michael Wilson wrote a great piece on how this problem resonates in Europe.

You can also TAKE ACTION NOW by calling on world leaders to support the Global Goals, which underscore the bonds connecting all people.