Feature

‘Illegal immigrant’: A bigoted term?

The Associated Press announced that it had dropped the term “illegal immigrant” from its influential stylebook.

There are no longer any illegal immigrants in the U.S.—at least according to the Associated Press, said Ruben Navarrette Jr. in the San Jose Mercury News. The world’s largest news-gathering organization last week announced that it had dropped the term “illegal immigrant” from its influential stylebook. The 11 million who crossed the border illegally will henceforth be described as people “entering a country illegally or without legal permission.” AP officials said the term “illegal immigrant” was insulting and inaccurate, as only actions—not people—can be called “illegal.” But this change isn’t about grammar. “It’s about political correctness,” and lobbying by pro-immigration activists. If this logic is embraced, “similar rebrandings could spread like wildfire,” said Eric Heyl in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Rather than use the insulting term “wife beater,” the language police will insist on “matrimonial pugilist.” A shoplifter will be called an “unsanctioned merchandise transporter.”

Scoff if you like, but the AP was right to abandon this bigoted term, said David Sirota in Salon.com. “Illegal” has been used exclusively “to denigrate Latinos,” and is never used to “attack white immigrants from Europe or Canada who overstay their visas.” Nor is it used to describe white people who break criminal laws. No one called “Bernie Madoff an ‘illegal’ for his Ponzi schemes.” In a pluralistic society like ours, “listening to how other people wish to be described is merely the civil thing to do,” said Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Daily News. In recent decades, “Negro” was replaced by “black” and then “African-American” as Americans of color secured basic civil rights and greater control over their identity. Earlier, the Irish, Jews, and Italians all battled against derogatory epithets. Latinos, with growing political power, “are just the latest group to travel this well-worn path.”

But if the goal is to change public attitudes and policy, said Megan McArdle in TheDailyBeast.com, “changing the name will not change how people feel.” The term “illegal immigrant” was originally a nicer substitute for “illegal alien,” which in turn had replaced pejoratives like “wetback.” But the more neutral terms didn’t stop many Americans “from wanting to ship the undocumented immigrants back across the border.” Unless the underlying social attitudes toward Latino immigrants change, any new phrase will simply “take on all the baggage of the old one.”

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