by Justin Valas

So, yesterday, Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein put up a post on the terminology “Illegal Immigrants.” Needless to say, the post had me steaming. Today, Viridiana and I took part in an immigration panel at North Carolina State University where John Hood (President of the conservative John Locke Foundation) also asserted that “Illegal” is an appropriate term for undocumented immigrants. He also asserted that “alien” was more appropriate than immigrant- to which I also take great offense. Word choice matters, especially when we’re talking about policies that impact real people.

Let’s make a  point very clear- “illegal” is an inappropriate and inaccurate term applied to undocumented immigrants. The reality is, unauthorized presence (being undocumented) is, in fact, a civil violation- not a crime. Civil violations are non-criminal infractions that can incur a fine but do not carry jail-time, nor should you be arrested for them. Jaywalking is a civil violation (though in some states, like Virginia, it is a misdemeanor- more ‘criminal’ than unauthorized presence). Admittedly, I have not always crossed the street at designated crosswalks- does that make me an “illegal pedestrian”? In that context, it sounds pretty ridiculous, right?

A lot of progressive bloggers (including Klein, Nicole @ PostBourgie, and Adam Serwer) seem to agree that the term “Illegals” is a pejorative that does not belong in responsible debate and serves to dehumanize undocumented immigrants. In recognizing that, they need to look at how short a leap it is between “Illegal Immigrants” and “Illegals,” and the rhetoric that those terms enable. At least Nicole and Serwer seem open minded about changing their position on the use of that term, while Klein remains unapologetic. Serwer offers that his mind could be changed if he heard a position opposing the use of “illegal immigrant” from a stand other than “as immigration reform groups, we think that hurts our cause.”

How about this one- it matters to the people we are talking about. Undocumented immigrants face the reality and ramifications of this rhetoric daily- and it’s not a pleasant one. The banner that was unfurled in the Senate office atrium during July’s sit-in didn’t read “Illegal and Unafraid”, it read “UNDOCUMENTED and Unafraid.” This external labeling from supposedly progressive allies, that does not take into account the wishes and terminology used by those to whom it applies, is patronizing, paternalistic, and offensive. It’s not about reclaiming and empowering the words “illegal immigrant,” (as Nicole encourages) that’s not at all the point. Most undocumented people lead otherwise “legal” lives, paying taxes, sending their children to school, and positively contributing to their communities.

Colorlines has started a new campaign called “Drop the I-word” in which they are encouraging people to stop using the term “Illegals” and to call on the media and government to do the same. On their site, they describe “Illegal(s)” as:

a damaging word that divides and dehumanizes communities and is used to discriminate against immigrants and people of color. The I-Word is shorthand for illegal alien, illegal immigrant and other harmful racially charged terms.

We aren’t talking about theoretical terms here, we are talking about words applied to real people. From a privileged position outside the referenced group, it’s easy to dismiss sensitivity around terms describing a group of people. We’ve seen it many times over in racial epithets that are now no longer acceptable in mainstream society. The core of this issue is no different, the right of a group of people to determine by which terms they are referenced. Words matter, names matter, and people matter. So progressive bloggers, and everyone else reading this, take this to heart. Commit yourselves to dropping the I-word, you can even sign Colorlines’ pledge if you would like to make your commitment public.