Stop Describing People as “Illegal”

by Nicole Chavez 

On November 9, Hillary Clinton spoke on immigration during a campaign stop in New Hampshire. When asked how she, as President, would attempt to better secure the Mexican-American border, Hillary referenced the votes she had made as a senator to establish a physical barrier between the two countries. In her statement she regarded the individuals who cross over the border as “illegal” immigrants. This is only one instance in a series of public statements Hillary has made throughout her political career in which she refers to immigrants, whether they be undocumented or refugees, as “illegal.”

To many, the use of the word illegal to describe immigrants may not seem overtly outrageous. Given the frequency with which the word has been used, both by politicians and in the mainstream media, some may expect the general populous to have become desensitized to this treacherous misuse of language.

Between 1980 and 2013, among all U.S. News sources, the word illegal within immigration-related articles was used an exorbitant 55 percent of the time. Whether it comes out of the mouth of an explicitly racist figure like Donald Trump or a relatively more progressive politician such as Hillary Clinton, many individuals freely describe undocumented immigrants as “illegal” without reflecting on the consequences their words have on the way society treats them.

Certain individuals might criticize this trepidation as just another instance in which the Millennial culture of “Political Correctness” is encroaching on the way American politics and society run. These critics may claim that the language we use to discuss matters of immigration matter little so long as the policies crafted by the government ultimately treat immigrants humanely. What these individuals and politicians fail to see is how vocabulary fundamentally shapes policy, both in its objectives and the way in which it depicts the population they directly affect.

Using the phrase “illegal immigrant” as an alternate to “undocumented immigrant” is a furtively transgressive act. The modifier “illegal” extends beyond describing an individual’s actions as criminal and interdicts her body. The arduous experiences of numerous immigrants are trivialized within the quip use of a single word. “Illegal immigrants” are no longer spouses, parents, or friends – they are now criminals who can justifiably be marginalized and oppressed by the U.S. government. How can one trust that government policies will humanize the conditions afflicting undocumented immigrants if the language policy makers and legislators use to describe these communities inevitably contribute to their erasure?

This derogatory term also has a racialized connotation that exemplifies the dichotomized lends through which the American government and public view immigration.

Seldom is the word illegal used to describe undocumented immigrants coming from Europe or Canada. They are often assumed to be either college students studying internationally or esteemed professionals. The negative connotation associated with immigrants is a burden imposed on Brown and Black bodies. Stereotypes of immigrants are associated with Mexicans who steal jobs and refugees from Third World countries who usurp the government’s resources. Contrary to these typecasts, it is society that exploits these immigrants, using their illegal status as a justification to do so. Ironically, industries rely on the cheap and expendable labor of these “illegal” bodies without acknowledging their own criminality in abusing them.

Furthermore, in the deconstruction of the word illegal in its use in immigration politics, it becomes evident that the derogatory term is legally inaccurate. If anything, the word actually convolutes political discourse. The term is a sign that the laws in our nation are unjustly applied since “illegal” immigrants are found guilty for being in the U.S. before they can be tried. The term “illegal” circumvents the implications of systemic oppression on the documentation status of immigrants. It ignores the way in which the U.S.’s path to citizenship is designed to make it nearly impossible for undocumented individuals. This especially holds true for low-income, un(formally) educated immigrants who do not have thousands of dollar and/or the time to tediously apply for numerous forms of government sanction.

Even when some degree of sanction is granted by the government, it is for a diminutive period of time. Students and workers who overstay their Visas and cannot receive an extension become undocumented immigrants. Refugees who overstay their period of asylum become undocumented immigrants. Undocumented immigrants cooperating with the legal system to get citizenship are put on backlog for years, vulnerable to deportation meanwhile. These undocumented immigrants do not desire to break the law. The U.S. government, however, gives them no other viable option.

On November 24, Telemundo, a American Spanish-language television network, hosted a Facebook chat that served as a venue for people, particularly Latinxs, to discuss immigration issues. At one point, Jose Antonio Vargas, a renowned immigration reform activist and journalist from the Philippines, called out Hillary Clinton for her use of the phrase “illegal immigrant” at her recent New Hampshire campaign stop. Vargas petitioned for Clinton to recognize the humanity of the 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. by not using the word illegal when referring to undocumented immigrants.

Clinton responded to Vargas with the following statement:

“That was a poor choice of words. As I’ve said throughout this campaign, the people at the heart of this issue are children, parents, families DREAMers. They have names, and hopes and dreams that deserve to be respected. I’ve talked about undocumented immigrants hundreds of times and fought for years for comprehensive immigration reform. And I will continue to do so. We are a country built by immigrants and our diversity makes us stronger as a nation – it’s something to be proud of celebrate and defend.”

The commitment to alter her vocabulary and to better acknowledge the humanity of undocumented immigrants is a start, albeit a small one. Engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty is Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “The New Colossus,” part of which reads “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/ … Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost to me.”

If this sonnet speaks to the values that America stands by, then we must push to abolish the culture that stigmatizes undocumented immigrants. We must welcome them with open arms as does the Statue of Liberty in Lazarus’ poem. Our national vocabulary around immigration should not admonish these immigrants as illegal and criminal. As we strive to establish a more compassionate discourse on immigration, we must ensure that our government policies mirror our language as well.