The editors at Creative Loafing knew we'd have to explain why we decided to join the Drop the I-Word campaign. Hosted by United 4 The Dream, the youth-led advocacy group of the Latin American Coalition, it hopes to eradicate the phrase "illegal immigrant" from the country's vocabulary, starting with newspapers and TV stations. Publications like The Progressive and YES! Magazine have signed on. The Society of Professional Journalists has encouraged its members to re-evaluate the use of "illegal immigrant" because "only the court system, not reporters and editors, can decide when a person has committed an illegal act."
But vocabulary is only part of why we're joining the campaign. As an alternative weekly and proponent of advocacy journalism, CL has the freedom to take a stand. Our readers expect it from us. We think the i-word is dehumanizing and perpetuates a negative stereotype of people who come to this country in search of a better life for themselves and their families. We think it will slowly turn into another -word. But there are arguable reasons for keeping the i-word around. The columns on these pages defend both sides. Whether they strengthen your opinions on immigration or change them doesn't matter to us. We just hope our decision helps to facilitate a conversation.
"Illegal" isn't illogical...
A simple strategy for winning a political debate is to ignore evidence and blur reason. Denial and obfuscation often frustrate an opponent into surrendering. The Drop the I-Word campaign has adopted this technique, apparently believing it offers the best defense for illegal immigration. However, while dropping the "i-word," or illegal, is long on rhetoric, it is short on good sense.
According to Drop the I-Word activists, referring to an illegal immigrant as illegal is racist, dehumanizing, contrary to accepted law, and detrimental to reasoned debate on the immigration issue. However, if there were but one hurdle to logical discourse on immigration, it would be this kind of nonsense. Illegal doesn't indict an alien's character; it identifies their status.
Illegal means contrary to law or statute, or forbidden by same. Collins Dictionary defines illegal as a person who has entered a country illegally. Under these terms, anyone of any race, religion, ethnicity or background can illegally immigrate, thereby becoming an illegal immigrant.
Genuine racial epithets identify persons or peoples according to skin color or heritage, not actions. For example, the "n-word" is a derogatory phrase used exclusively toward black Americans without regard to their character or status. The same can be said for the "c-word" in regard to Asians and the "s-word" for Hispanics. Each term identifies and denigrates based on nothing more than skin tone or ethnic heritage.
Illegal describes a person who has violated accepted legal procedures, nothing more. Thus illegal in terms of citizenship identifies someone whose immigration has violated the law. I'll go as far as saying "illegal" is completely race-neutral. Germans, Chinese, Kuwaitis, Mexicans and Americans can all become illegals simply by moving from one country to another without navigating the appropriate bureaucratic red tape. Since the word can be equally applied to any race, heritage or ethnicity based on their status, how can it be racist?
Actually, we have killed two birds with one stone. Since illegal describes the status of the immigrant whereas immigrant, or alien, describes the person, illegal is neither racist nor dehumanizing. The only time racism and dehumanization can be equated with immigration status is when someone with an axe to grind does so for political purposes.
Another issue Drop the I-Word raises is the legal accuracy of illegal. This, too, is misleading. We're not determining guilt in a civil or criminal sense, but in the court of public opinion where the burden of proof is miniscule. Even so, does illegal pronounce guilt without trial or inhibit a person's ability to defend their rights? We can answer an unequivocal "no" to the first question, regarding the issue of racism, and a conditional "yes" to the second, the issue of guilt.
I can't recall a single instance of widespread deportation without the benefit of a hearing. The closest example I can cite is the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Even then, Japanese-Americans weren't deported. Now, I'll admit that illegal immigrants might have difficulty protecting basic liberties, such as reporting crimes committed against them. But the situation isn't unique to illegal immigrants; the same can be said of anyone engaged in an illegal activity. Such people naturally fly under the radar. Why? Because their actions are illegal, they recognize that fact, and they fear discovery.
If illegal is a slur, how should we identify immigrants who ignore both our borders and immigration laws? According to the campaign, "unauthorized" and "undocumented" are acceptable alternatives. But for how long? If the definition of illegal can be transformed into a racial, subhuman epithet, you can bet the "u-words" won't be far behind.
Understand that Drop the I-Word isn't presently seeking a legislated speech code whereby offenders are held civilly or criminally accountable. Their goal is to convince journalists to drop the "i-word" from their lexicon. And frankly, the journalism community possesses the right to determine what words and phrases are acceptable in their writings and publications. But opponents of using "illegal" to describe illegal behavior should be intellectually honest about their attempt to change the word's definition to fit their political stance.
Dropping the "i-word" allows journalists to feel warm and fuzzy about their tolerance and open-mindedness. But they're ignoring the elephant in the room. If journalists won't admit the obvious fact that illegal immigrants have immigrated illegally, they have little to contribute toward solving the issue.
Anthony W. Hager is a contributing columnist at PunditHouse. He has written for American Thinker and Political Derby, among others.
...but it sure is ignorant
There are a lot of reasons why Creative Loafing shouldn't sign the Drop the I-Word petition.
As editors of other local news organizations have rightly pointed out, it encourages censorship. By joining the campaign, through which we pledge not to refer to an undocumented immigrant as "illegal," we are limiting creative expression. It can still appear in our sources' direct quotes — we will not alter those — but our writers will have to choose different ways to describe people who do not have the proper documentation to be in this country.
Others argue that because some dictionaries deem the word appropriate, we should, too. If the wordsmiths say it's OK, shouldn't we?
Sometimes even when words are right, they're wrong.
I grew up in Texas, but don't expect me to know much about cowboys or country music. That's because I was born and raised in Brownsville, a town on the state's southernmost tip. It's a predominantly Hispanic community that's proud of its heritage, even celebrating its relationship with its Mexican border town, Matamoros, in an annual festival called Charro (roll the "r") Days.
In high school, I went to quincenieras, not Sweet Sixteens. Much to the amusement of friends I've made since leaving my hometown, I have a hard time saying words like guacamole and gringo the way, well, a gringo would say them. I can throw together a taco in seconds, but turning meat into a loaf still perplexes me.
Because of Brownsville's proximity to the border, undocumented immigrants often chose to live or raise families there. They and their children attended school and Sunday mass. They shopped at the mall and went to the movies. They were in my AP classes. To the state and U.S. governments, they may have been different, but to me, they were like every other student nervous about prom or finals or making it to the playoffs. They were just like me, another awkward kid trying to make it through school. The idea of calling them anything but classmates or friends — or offending them with ugly labels — seems so strange.
Why do we believe the i-word is one of those ugly labels? And why do we think "undocumented" is better?
To answer that, I turned to my mother, a professor of English and trained linguist. In her telling, language is constantly evolving. At one time, "colored" was a respectful way to describe African Americans. Today, it seems antiquated and makes the user sound ignorant.
Too often, politicians and TV networks use the i-word less as a neutral adjective and more as code to belittle undocumented immigrants and turn them into "others"; to instill hate and fear and further marginalize this country. Maybe if the i-word wasn't flung like a grenade at people who bring their families to the U.S. to work toward a better life, I wouldn't shudder when I see it in print or hear it used on Capitol Hill. Perhaps "undocumented" will one day fall out of favor with lawyers and activist groups representing immigrants. But that day hasn't come.
Taking this a step further, maybe one day the notion of labelling someone at all based on papers he may or may not possess will seem as antiquated as one human owning another.
We can't change the conversation until we change the vocabulary. Since Creative Loafing is in the word business, why wouldn't we support this campaign? Some might consider striking the i-word from our pages as censorship, but where I come from, it's just common sense.
Ana McKenzie is Creative Loafing's news & culture editor.