As a media advocacy organization, GLAAD understands that media has the power to either inflame or help diminish prejudice toward any group. That is why we are part of “Drop the I-Word,” a campaign urging media to stop using the word “illegal” when speaking about undocumented immigrants.
And that is why we are so disappointed with the New York Times’ decision not to ban the use of the term but to instead urge reporters to seek alternatives.
Describing a person as illegal – or worse, as “AN” illegal – reduces that person to an adjective and stops dialogue by allowing people to forget that there are human beings at the heart of this issue.
There are approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States (about 267,000 of whom are LGBT), and the term “illegal” unfairly stigmatizes them.
For us at GLAAD the battle is reminiscent of the work we did to educate the media about the term “homosexual.” This word similarly reduces all members of a diverse and vibrant community to a single adjective, which describes only a tiny fragment of their humanity.
It took some time but eventually the Associated Press and others understood the negative connotations associated with the word and the ways it was used to stigmatize, marginalize, and ultimately dehumanize our community. Which is why anti-gay groups, to this day, almost always use the term “homosexual.”
The AP decided not to use the terms “illegal immigrant” or simply “illegal” to describe a person. USA Today has made a similar pledge, because they too understand the power that this word has, when used in this context.
Is the term “illegal” ever used to describe a person who is engaged in any other activity that is against the law? Is a person who is caught speeding ever called an illegal driver? Would we ever call a bank robber an “illegal?” This usage of the word illegal is grammatically inconsistent with the word’s accepted usage, and because this is the only context in which it ever describes a person, it has dehumanizing results.
The word is also racially charged. White immigrants, for example, are far less likely to be described as “illegal” or asked for their documents if they get pulled over—no one makes assumptions about their immigration status. But plenty of assumptions are made when your skin color is not white.
Because of this, the word “Illegal” is absolutely considered a slur by Latinos and all immigrants. And no slur should ever be used to describe people, let alone by an objective media.
It can be tough to explain the power of certain words, even to your own family and friends. In my case, there have been a few times when a person who is supportive of me used anti-gay language in front of me. When I called them on it, they explained that they don’t mean to insult gay people because they have lots of LGBT friends, myself included. And that’s when I explain that regardless of someone’s intention, the impact is nonetheless hurtful.
Most people probably don’t intend to so thoroughly dehumanize an undocumented person by calling them “an illegal,” but they do. It’s hard to understand the power of any pejorative when you are not part of the group the term targets. But understand that casual use of this word allows those who actually do mean to dehumanize undocumented immigrants to control the debate.
Studies show that the term “illegal aliens” elicits much more negative feelings than the term “undocumented immigrants.” And the impact is felt more widely and deeply when it is used in the media, by a voice of neutral authority.
One of the most wonderful aspects of any language is its ability to adapt and update itself. Not so long ago many found it ridiculous to use the term “fire fighter” instead of “fireman.” Was it really that hard to adapt to using fire fighter? No, but a small change made a big difference in the lives of female fire fighters who are no longer made invisible by language.
Media should use words that create clarity, that aid in understanding and educate readers about a particular issue. Media should not use words that fuel a climate of intolerance and violence.
The New York Times badly missed the mark with its decision and failed to show leadership, which is what we expect from the nation’s newspaper of record. We hope many more media outlets decide to take a principled stand, because no human being is “illegal.”
Dave Montez, Chief of Staff, GLAAD