I was excited when Benita Veliz addressed the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. Veliz is an honor student, DREAM Act advocate, and undocumented immigrant eligible for deportation relief, thanks to the Obama Administration’s deferred action policy. I was less thrilled at how the press covered her appearance, the first by an undocumented immigrant at a political convention. “Illegal immigrant makes history,” read a headline in the Los Angeles Times.
My problem is the I-word: illegal. Although the terms “illegal immigrant” and “illegal” are in common usage, they really shouldn’t be. When we call the undocumented “illegal,” it is neither fair, respectful, or accurate. By terming people “illegal,” we define them by law breaking. The I-word makes it more difficult to talk reasonably about illegal immigration, and it’s time we move past it.
Calling undocumented immigrants “illegal” is wrong because it ignores one of the cornerstones of American democracy, our judicial presumption of innocence. When journalists report on crime, they always use the word “alleged,” whether they are describing a car thief or a child molester. Likewise, no one but an immigration judge can decide whether an immigrant is “illegal” – not a reporter, not a politician, not even a police officer. But when we call a person “illegal,” we are acting as judge and jury ourselves, which flies in the face of the Due Process guarantees of the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments.
What’s more, the I-word is dehumanizing. Consider Martha Stewart, who served time in a federal prison for insider trading. Do we call her “illegal?” Of course not. Stewart is a style icon, an editor, a businesswoman, and a mother. It seems awfully harsh to call her an “illegal.” Yet too often, we are willing to apply that label to millions of undocumented people who also have other identities: employees, neighbors, mothers, fathers, and students.
The term “illegal immigrant” is something of a misnomer. Being in the country without papers is not a crime. It is a civil violation. The Supreme Court made that clear in its June decision overturning a provision of Arizona’s SB 1070 that criminalized being in the state without papers. And according to the Pew Center, roughly half of the undocumented population (45 percent) did not illegally immigrate. They entered the U.S. legally and overstayed their visas.
Then there are the policy implications arising from the I-word. When we call a huge group of people “illegal” – Pew estimates that there are 10.2 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. – it is easy not to see them as individuals. While the bulk of the undocumented are migrants in search of better opportunities, their ranks include refugees, asylum seekers, victims of human traffickers, as well as DREAMers like Veliz. Tagging them all with a negative label is simply not right. Worse, language like “illegal” bespeaks an insensitivity towards Latinos and immigrants that can result in discrimination, racial profiling, and even violence. In fact, the FBI’s most recent statistics show an increase in the percentages of anti-Latino hate crimes for 2010.
True, it can be cumbersome to say “undocumented immigrants” instead of the easier shorthand “illegals.” I myself have written about “illegal immigrants” – and I regret it. Still, instead of saying “illegal immigrant” or “illegal,” it is better to use more neutral terms like “undocumented” or “unauthorized immigrant.“
Benita Veliz does not deserve to be called “illegal.” No human being does. This is not a matter of political correctness; it is a matter of respecting the humanity of all people. Dropping the I-word would go a long way towards putting the civility back in our immigration debate.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.