Is ‘Illegal Immigrant’ a Racial Slur?
Some activist groups say it is.


Charles Garcia — the CEO of Garcia Trujillo, a strategy firm that works with Hispanic-owned companies — does not like the term illegal immigrant. He prefers economic refugee.

He is not alone. Media Matters for America, the liberal website “dedicated to . . . correcting conservative misinformation,” claimed that Fox News used President Obama’s June 15 immigration announcement as an “opportunity to dehumanize undocumented immigrants.” MMFA reported that Fox News used the term illegals 17 times during its June 15 broadcast, illegal aliens twice, and aliens once, not including uses of these terms in on-screen text. These “racial slurs” are further proof, the site contended, of Fox’s “long, documented history of anti-immigrant bias.”

Efforts to change the parlance of the immigration debate are not new. In 2010 the Diversity Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists called on journalists nationwide to replace illegal immigrant and illegal alien with undocumented worker or undocumented immigrant, arguing that the usual terms are “offensive” to Latinos.

That same year, the Applied Research Center, a self-described “racial justice think tank,” launched its Drop the I-Word (DTIW) campaign, calling on media outlets and elected officials to “uphold reason, due process, and responsible speech by dropping the i-word.” Illegals, the think tank contends, “is a racially charged slur used to dehumanize and discriminate against immigrants and people of color regardless of migratory status.”

But while DTIW maintains that “the i-word” is racist, dehumanizing, and often inaccurate, is it actually any of the three?

“The discriminatory message is not explicit, but hidden, or racially coded,” DTIW’s website reports, and it “fuel[s] violence.” Mónica Novoa, who came to the U.S. in the 1980s as a refugee from wartorn El Salvador, is the coordinator of the DTIW campaign. She cites as an example of anti-immigrant violence the case of Marcelo Lucero, a 37-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant who was stabbed to death on Long Island in 2008. Angel Loja, a friend of Lucero’s who was with him at the time, testified that the gang that assaulted them called them “Mexicans” and “illegals.” Novoa also mentions bullying against immigrants in Charlotte, N.C., where the language used indicates, she says, the “anti-immigrant animus . . . obvious in the comments section of any daily around the country whenever someone reports on immigration.”

These attacks should be condemned in the strongest terms, but they do not suggest that the majority — or even a significant minority — of the Americans who use the word “illegal” use it as racist code. Moreover, the claim that “illegal” is a racist slur fits a broader pattern: “Pro-immigration” organizations are quick to label as racist any attempt to enforce federal immigration law, while the DTIW campaign regularly conflates “anti-Latino” with “anti-immigrant” under the guise of promoting “racial justice.”

One of DTIW’s taglines, taken from Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, is “No Human Being Is Illegal.” The vocabulary of the current immigration conversation, says Novoa, “demoniz[es] an entire population of people.” Take alien, for example: “Alien has the connotation of someone being subhuman.”

Shahid Haque-Hausrath of the Montana-based Border Crossing Law Firm, PC, wrote on the firm’s website that illegal alien “implies that a person’s existence is criminal . . . [It] has been used to dehumanize immigrants and divorce ourselves from thinking of them as human beings.”