SAN DIEGO — There is a campaign under way to shame media companies into abandoning the term “illegal immigrant” and replacing it with kinder and gentler euphemisms such as “undocumented worker.”
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists—which I’ve been a member of for two decades, and which has rarely stuck its neck out to defend Hispanic journalists, let alone immigrants—has even gone so far as to suggest that the phrase causes hate crimes.
The crusade against the “I-word” began in September when, at an online journalism conference, freelance journalist and activist Jose Antonio Vargas put media companies on notice. He said they would be monitored and when they used “illegal immigrant”—which he claims “dehumanizes” people—the infraction would be duly recorded.
Vargas—who was born in the Philippines and last year revealed his status as an illegal immigrant (he prefers “American without papers”)—identified The Associated Press and The New York Times as “two main targets.”
Both institutions have since defended the term and continue to use it. In response, Univision attacked the Times as being behind the curve and out of touch with Latinos.
Let’s hear it for common sense. Media companies—and the journalists who work for them—need to stand up to these pressure tactics and continue to use the term. Here are 10 reasons why:
A close look at the word ‘illegal immigrant’
— The wording is accurate. When you enter the United States without permission or overstay a visa, you break a law. Vargas notes that “being in a country without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one.” True. But the word “illegal” simply means against the law, and civil laws can be broken just like criminal ones.
— The proposed change is, for the most part, about being politically correct. And this is not a good spot from which to practice journalism. My profession isn’t about making folks comfortable. That’s public relations. At its best, journalism is about making them uncomfortable.
— The word police simply want to sanitize the debate, so that immigration reformers don’t get their hands dirty by condoning illegal activity.
— One way to sanitize is to minimize the offense. The idea is to advance the argument that illegal immigration isn’t really a crime, just an example of desperate people doing what they have done for centuries—chasing opportunity to survive.
—For those who are concerned that the word “illegal” stirs negative emotions, many of those concerns can be addressed if we agree not to use it as a noun (i.e., “the illegals”) and if we completely refrain from using the much more offensive term “illegal alien.”
—The charge that the term “dehumanizes” people is ridiculous. It describes an action as much as it does a person. An illegal immigrant is someone who immigrates illegally.
—This debate distracts from the real issues—i.e., the need for comprehensive immigration reform, walls of separation between immigration agents and local police, an end to do-it-yourself state immigration laws, and a return to the days when deportation policies were not out of whack.
—The issue also alienates supporters of comprehensive immigration reform and other right-minded people who think we should have a more fair, more honest, and more humane way of dealing with illegal immigrants but who also feel uneasy about scrubbing the language and calling them anything other than “illegal immigrants.”
—This is a squabble among elites. Ask an illegal immigrant if he cares what he’s called or whether he is more preoccupied with his day-to-day struggle to work and provide for his family, avoid deportation and ensure that his children get legalized, and you’ll see that changing the language of the debate doesn’t even register.
—Finally, the crusade highlights the hypocrisy of liberal Democrats who like to think of themselves as progressives because they eschew a term such as “illegal” but then turn around and support a Democratic president who has racked up record numbers of deportations.
This whole discussion is a terrible waste of time. It’s also a reminder that those of us who support comprehensive immigration reform need to get our story straight.
We have long argued that illegal immigrants should have the opportunity, via earned legalization, to make amends for wrongdoing. Is the new argument that those immigrants needn’t bother because, on second thought, they did nothing wrong?