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Rinku Sen Headshot

Why I Don't Use the I-Word -- In Any Form

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Since we launched the Drop the I-Word campaign, thousands of people and numerous media outlets have pledged not to label immigrants criminals and to affirm their humanity and dignity. Of those thousands, some are immigrants, both undocumented and with papers, who are asking us to stand up for our values, not just bear witness to their demise. Others are allies who recognize that this is an historic moment to support a resilient community. Still others are motivated by the simple recognition that journalists and everyday people alike can no longer allow fear mongers to dictate the parameters of our conversation.

We have also encountered skepticism, notably from progressive reporters. While our colleagues agree that “illegals” is a slur, they’re okay with its longer version, “illegal immigrant.” Ezra Klein at the Washington Post, for instance, dismisses “word games” that “paper over” the issue. But Klein picks the wrong target. As long as we use the word “illegal” in connection with immigration or immigrants, it papers over the fact that our laws are unjustly applied. It creates the illusion of simplicity, when that could not be further from the case. The only thing that should be simple is that immigrants are real people, not problems. 

There’s no conflict between honest reporting and dropping the i-word. I use undocumented and unauthorized regularly, as this is a matter of permission represented by a piece of paper. I never obfuscate how a source came to be in the United States, whether they overstayed a visa or crossed a border. Dana McCourt weighs in on the debate with a call for more precision, not less, by recognizing that the U.S. government treats immigrants differently based on their specific situations. McCourt avoids the term “largely because the bare ‘illegal’ is used as a slur and the longer ‘illegal immigrant’ doesn’t reliably pick out a specific class of people or what’s wrong with their legal status.” In other words, because it’s imprecise.

At The American Prospect, Adam Serwer calls the phrase a “facially neutral term that advocates don’t like.” But if we agree that reducing a person to a crime is racist and dehumanizing in one form, isn’t it so in all forms? We have to look at the framework from which the term emerges.

Serwer has reported a lot on the ways in which race gets manipulated in our nation’s politics, so I was surprised to see him exempt the language of immigration from its political context. That context, simply put, is this: authorized immigration is impossible for some people, yet those same people are regularly hired as cheap, exploited labor with a limited ability to protect their own rights. That cheap labor is comprised almost entirely by people of color, not because they just happen to be the ones overstaying visas and crossing borders, but because the system is fundamentally rigged against them. No one else who benefits from the set up, including the employers who recruit and hire these migrants, is slapped with a similar label. Reason.org illustrates this well with a chart of “Our Nation’s Broken Immigration and Naturalization System.”

The repetition of the i-word in conjunction with images of brown-skinned people, particularly Latinos, popularizes the notion that individuals are to blame for our systemic challenges. It reinforces racial fear and economic anxiety, creates a hateful environment, and increases the American public’s tolerance for daily violations of human rights. The i-word limits the conversations we are able to have about immigrants, their rights and their mobility in this globalized economy. 

In Operation Gatekeeper, geographer Joe Nevins points out that language matters in immigration and always has. “Wetback” was the preferred official term in the 1950’s. When it fell out of favor, “illegal” took its place. The word, whether as a noun or a modifier, was the rhetorical core of a discursive shift on immigration. News outlets increasingly reported that immigrants were flooding the border and overwhelming services, and began coupling immigration with criminality. 

All of this drove a policy shift, too. Over the last 30 years, legislatures have stripped most immigrants of access to vital social programs, built up the enforcement infrastructure to unprecedented proportions and ultimately brought us to a point where the country deports a record 393,000 people a year. In this politically charged environment, even green-card holders are swept up in the deportation dragnet. As Serwer himself notes in his analysis of Arizona’s SB 1070, there has been a severe impact on communities of color: “The reason you can pass a law that encourages racial profiling in spirit while prohibiting it in letter is that everyone has a concept in their head of what an ‘illegal immigrant’ looks and sounds like.”

So the problem is not that the discourse makes the work of pro-immigrant advocates harder, but that it renders untenable the lives of people who contribute to American culture and economy miserable, along with those of the people who love them and look like them. At the center of this debate are human beings. Not illegal beings, but human beings. Discourse reflects the way that people think about themselves and the country thinks about us. 

The word homosexual, for example, is clinically correct but experienced as dehumanizing by gay and lesbian people, and so they pushed for journalists to drop it. As the discourse changes, so does the culture and policy affecting gay people—not nearly fast enough, but significantly nonetheless. Some may say, “But being gay isn’t a choice.” Well, neither is escaping poverty, drought or war. That millions of people wind up in the country without permission comes about for many reasons, only a very few of which have to do with the choices individuals made.

In the end, every journalist and media outlet has to decide which language to use. I once interviewed a source related to the Federation of American Immigration Reform who insisted that I use “illegal immigrant” throughout my story, not just when quoting him. Well, I get to choose my own words, and for all the reasons above, I choose not to use FAIR’s language.

I’d encourage others also to consider their language, and its source. Where did it come from? What is the effect, intentional or not? How does a reductionist and biased lexicon thrive? There are alternatives that meet our needs, not just for varied vocabulary, but also for thoughtful, accurate journalism that recognizes the fundamental humanity of the people about whom we are reporting.

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