Human beings are legal. Actions are illegal. Despite this clear distinction, the term "illegal immigrant" is frequently used in the ongoing debate on immigration reform. The time has come, however, to retire this offensive term as we advance as a society.
Not only is it grammatically incorrect, it is also dehumanizing. The "I-word", as many Latinos call it, has a direct impact on the lives of the 11 million people it refers to — those living in the United States who do not have the proper documentation.
It attempts to discredit this group of people and question their motives for being in this country, as well as instill fear in order to silence their voices.
Fatma Marouf, co-director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Nevada Boyd School of Law, is among the critics of the term. She argues that the term illegal immigrants erroneously suggests that anyone in the United States without legal status is a criminal. Unlawful presence in the United States does not make the person a criminal. She goes on to add, we don't call people who cheat on their taxes illegal taxpayers, do we?
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who describes himself as undocumented, calls the term offensive and inaccurate because it criminalizes people rather than their actions.
The I-word intentionally creates an image of criminals lurking in the shadows of our communities, which undermines the fact that most immigrants who do not have documentation are hardworking mothers, fathers, sons and daughters whose only crime is trying to achieve a better life for themselves and their families.
My family is among them. I am the proud son of immigrants. My parents, who at an age when many young adults today are just concerned about the next party or plans for spring break, made a life-changing decision.
My mother was 18 years old and my father was 21 when they came to the United States. They didn't speak English. They were scared and desperate. But, my mother worked several jobs, including one in a factory, where in the summer there was no air conditioning and in the winter poor heating. My father worked several jobs, too. His work days began at 2 in the morning and ended at 10 at night.
Of course, their story is not unique. Perhaps that is why many have underestimated the passion immigration reform stirs up. In trying to win last year's presidential election, the Republican Party thought Latino citizens would not be impacted by its vitriolic attacks on those living here without permission. Candidate Mitt Romney used the phrase "undocumented illegals" when describing his "self-deportation" policy. As history now illustrates, he and his advisors failed to understand that although Latino voters may not be directly affected by deportation, their friends and families are. With their vote, they spoke for a community that conservatives tried to demonize.
No organization wants to be the next Republican Party. So, it was no surprise when the Associated Press announced earlier this month that it will no longer use the term llegal immigrant. It will make the change in the AP Stylebook, a usage guide used by the news industry.
This is a prudent about-face decision. Right before the November election, Tom Kent, the AP's deputy managing editor for standards and production, argued for the use of illegal immigrant because "such people are here in violation of the law. It's simply a legal reality."
USA Today has followed the AP's lead in dropping the derogatory term. Other media outlets such as the New York Times say they're also considering making changes to their stylebook guidelines. Really? What mind-twisting debate is there to be had?
There is no room for hesitation or procrastination when it comes to doing the right thing. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists condemns the use of illegal immigrants, illegal aliens and illegals.
Those demeaning titles must be seen for what they are: propaganda tools used to blame a group of vulnerable people for the social and economic ills that plague a nation. Our media must lead the way in discarding yet another vestige of hate.
Hugo Balta of West Hartford is president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and a senior producer at ESPN. This piece first appeared in CTLatinoNews.com, an online English-language news site and news service that covers Latino issues.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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