Politics & Policy

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.”

#page#“A person cannot be illegal,” says Novoa. The language confuses the “actions and the people who are committing those actions.” But in fact, for Novoa, there is no place at all for illegal: She refuses to use the word in any context. And she is stumped, during our phone conversation, when I ask how it differs from calling someone a criminal or a felon.

Novoa says that it is “easy to confuse this term for legal language.” U.S. law does not define illegal alien, nor does it use the term illegal immigrant. But it does define alien: “any person not a citizen or national of the United States” (8 USC § 1101). This has been standard government usage for centuries, most famously in the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services continues to use the term in official publications. As for illegal, the term indicates a violation of the law; there is therefore no reason for the law itself to define it.

In part, Haque-Hausrath rests his argument against illegal alien on the fact that overstaying a visa, as many immigrants have done, “is a civil offense, not a criminal offense” — which is true: It is a federal criminal misdemeanor to enter the U.S. other than through an established point of entry, while it is a civil infraction to overstay a visa. But to call only the former “illegal” is misleading. Many things are illegal but not criminal — exceeding the speed limit, for example. Overstaying one’s visa falls into this category.

Another argument against illegal immigrant is that it presumes the guilt of those it denotes. NumbersUSA estimates that, of the approximately 10.8 million “unauthorized immigrants” currently residing in the U.S., about 60 percent crossed the border illegally and about 40 percent overstayed their visas. But to call all 10.8 million of those immigrants illegal, according to DTIW’s website, “finds many people guilty before they are tried.” Haque-Hausrath concurs:

When white collar criminals are arrested, we are careful to label them as “accused” and state that the government’s accusations are merely “alleged.” But when newspapers refer to immigration raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the headlines often repeat ICE’s figures on the number of “illegal aliens” who were arrested. These individuals are effectively convicted in the media before trial ever begins.

That is reasonable ground for precision in terminology, but it is no argument against using the term for people who in fact are here illegally. Discussing the problems — economic, social, cultural, moral — of a massive population residing in this country in violation of American law requires a general term, and illegal immigrants is a perfectly reasonable label for that group.

When journalists say that there are 10.8 million “illegal immigrants” inside American borders, Novoa says, they fail to put “people first.” Indeed, the intrinsic dignity of every person should be respected, and it is true that many immigrants have suffered immense hardship in their home nations. But empathy should not be an excuse to overlook the fact that people who broke our laws to come here have no right to remain here. The authorities and the media should not leap to the conclusion that any particular individual belongs in this group, but if he is found to have no legal documentation, he should be treated accordingly.

#page#But DTIW goes farther than merely to dissemble on the question of illegality. The campaign uses inaccurate language of its own. DTIW condemns the “anti-immigration strategy” that, through the mainstream media, has normalized the use of illegal and similar terms. But with the exception of a few fringe groups, most do not oppose immigration as such. They oppose illegal immigration, and many argue for restoring the sorts of restrictions on immigration that existed until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. Above all, they insist on the importance of repealing that act’s family-reunification provision, which has let in hundreds of thousands of low-skilled immigrants. DTIW’s conflation of nativist groups with people who want strong action against illegal immigration and a sensible revision of the terms of legal immigration is, in DTIW’s own words, a practice that “halt[s] and derail[s] reasoned, informed debate.”

However, for all the misleading arguments and examples, Novoa’s final advice is sound: “For the purposes of reporting and for the purposes of the law, what we can ask is for people to be as precise as possible.” In the end, a judgment must be made about the subject of any conversation about immigration, and the goal of that judgment should be to label the persons involved as accurately as possible.

And that responsibility belongs to both sides.

— Ian Tuttle is an editorial intern at National Review.

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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