Forever Foreign? The Use of the Term ‘Illegal Immigrants” and the Need to Choose Our Words Carefully


Anyone who has ever been called a derogatory name knows that not only does it hurt, but it influences how you think of yourself.  Have you ever been called fatty?  Stupid?  You may not have been either, but you might have started to feel that way.  The naming of immigrants as “illegal” is a controversy that has been brewing here in the United States for quite some time as well as abroad, most specifically in the European Union.

I would posit that calling an immigrant illegal directly and often indirectly influences not only how he or she feels about himself, but also how others treat him or her.   It encourages discrimination so widespread that it can prevent those who are already vulnerable from having any modicum of a normal and safe life.  I have read and heard the arguments that encourage society to “call it like it is”—that the word “Illegal” simply means that you have “broken a law.”  Journalist Ruben Navarette defending the journalists right to use the “illegal terms writes in the  “Opinion Corner” on the VOXXI website:

‘This is a squabble among elites.  Ask an illegal immigrant if he cares what he is called for whether he is more preoccupied with his day-to-day struggle to work and provide for his family, avoid deportation and ensure that his children get legalized, and you’ll see that changing the language of the debate does not even register.’

Right beside Navarette’s assertion is a photo of a many holding a young boy on his shoulder holding up a sign that says ‘Ninguna Persona Es Illegal!’  (No person is Illegal). Hmmmm.  Interesting.  Looks like it matters to somebody, Mr. Navarette.

I could not disagree more.  I believe that language shapes our perception of reality and I tend to abhor labels, particularly negative ones that have the potential to discriminate against people who are already, in so many ways, have the cards stacked against them.


The dehumanization of immigrants, in general, is appalling.  Those of us who reside in the country we were born in or who legally are able to live in peace and make our livings in another cannot know the day to day pressure and agony of being a non-person in a society in which you desire nothing more than to live in peace and safety.   Mr. Navarette, is, no doubt, a good journalist and feels that journalism is not designed to make people feel good and, as a result, he calls it like he sees it and urges other journalist to do the same.  He does not like the term “undocumented worker,” which is certainly gentler and does not invalidate someone’s basic humanity.

Not illegal

In Europe, calling immigrants illegal goes beyond heated rhetoric and often results in racist and rage-fueled riots.  The far right in the EU has fanned the burning flames of racism, increasing the fear of the ‘invader’ who threatens jobs, brings disease, increases crime and threatens a traditional way of life.  In Italy, you can be punished for providing illegal immigrants with shelter. In France a Muslim woman cannot wear a burqua.  Just imagine.


Ah, the nomenclature is changing and it is difficult not to get caught up in the controversy, but immigrants are living, breathing human beings.  They deserve our protection.  And as my grandmother used to say: “ make your words short and sweet ones because one day you may have to eat them.”

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