I’m hereby banning the use of the word “illegals” to refer to human beings on “Alas,” with exceptions for sarcasm (i.e., someone using the term to mock anti-immigrant attitudes). A database search shows that many posters here have used the term — not all the time, but on occasion. I’m confident it’s a habit we can break.
I’m not banning “illegal immigrant” or even the vile “illegal alien,” although I hope most “Alas” comment-writers will choose not to use these terms, out of respect for my sensibilities (you are a guest here, blah blah blah) if nothing else.
I myself will try to use “undocumented immigrants.” This seems to me to be less logical than my preferred term, “unauthorized migrants” (which is the most accurate term, with the least derogatory implications), but “undocumented immigrants” has come to be the consensus term among most people defending the interests of undocumented immigrants.
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In our last discussion on this, Robert, Ron, and Sailorman offered a variety of arguments in defense of “illegal alien” and/or “illegal immigrant,” and against “undocumented immigrant.” None of the arguments were persuasive.
1. The appeal to accuracy.
First was the argument that “illegal alien” is the most accurate term. But in fact the term carries two inaccurate connotations in regular English usage. (It is accurate in legalese, but since “Alas” is not a legal journal legalese isn’t the relevant criteria.)
The term “illegal” implies that a felony has been committed; but being an undocumented immigrant is not a felony, it’s a misdemeanor. The term “alien” implies “strange,” “adverse,” and “hostile” — not to mention “non-human” — according to Webster’s. None of that is accurate.
Furthermore, we don’t use the word “illegal” to refer to people who commit misdemeanors, except in the case of undocumented immigrants. We don’t call teenagers out after a legal curfew “illegal teenagers”; we don’t call a speeding driver an “illegal driver.” For that matter, even in the case of felonies, we don’t call the person “illegal.” The action is illegal; the person is not. Referring to the person as illegal is inaccurate.
So neither the term “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant” can be defended on the basis of superior accuracy.
2. The argument from necessity.
It was implied that not using the term “illegal immigrant” will somehow prevent us from discussing what immigration laws should be, and how our laws and practices should address undocumented immigrants. As Robert put it, “the existing [alternative terms] are pathetic jokes that attempt to win the argument by defining it out of existence.”
This argument is so stupid that I don’t know how to respond to it. Consider this sample dialog:
SUE: I think the police should round up undocumented immigrants and feed them cupcakes.
NANCY: They can’t do that without a warrant.
See? Perfectly easy to argue policy one way or the other. This is because “illegal immigrant” is not, in fact, the only term that can be used — hence the debate over which term to use. If I decide to use the term “big” instead of “large,” that doesn’t mean I’ve defined the concept of “large” out of existence.
3. The argument from indifference. (“So what if the term I used is insulting to the people I’m talking about? Why should I care?”)
In response, I’d argue that undocumented immigrants are people, and needlessly insulting or dehumanizing them is wrong simply because needlessly hurting people is wrong. There is no policy approach towards immigration (including undocumented immigration) which cannot be argued for while avoiding the term “illegal immigrants,” or the vile “illegal aliens.” There is therefore no need to use these terms when discussing policy.
If that doesn’t sway you, then consider the practical implications. Many politically engaged Latin@s are insulted by the terms “illegal” or “alien.” Needlessly alienating large numbers of Latinos and Latinas is poor strategy if you actually want to have your policy preferences on this issue enacted.
4. “This argument is just semantics.”
Well, it’s certainly true that this is a semantic argument, and that people choose words based not only on literal meaning, but also based on subtext. For instance, while not all who use the term “illegal aliens” hate immigrants, among immigrant-haters the use of the term (or its shorter form “illegals”) is commonplace. That’s not a coincidence; immigrant-haters recognize that these terms are dehumanizing, and that’s why they prefer to use them.
So yes, it’s a semantic argument. But “semantic” doesn’t mean “illegitimate.” It’s perfectly legitimate not to want people referred to with terms that both they, and those who hate them most, recognize as dehumanizing and insulting.