The words we use can signal the past and foretell the future. The way they define a situation or a problem sometimes has the potential to decide its outcome. For this reason, it’s important that we stop using the term “illegal” when referring to undocumented immigrants in the United States. This change is a fundamental first step to immigration reform.
Many Americans speak casually of “illegals” and “illegal aliens” when discussing undocumented immigrants. When these terms are used, they make it seem as if criminals and terrorists are arriving on our doorstep — a total misconception of the 11 million people who, for the most part, seek the kinds of jobs that Americans avoid.
It’s true that these immigrants did break the law when they entered the U.S. without documents, and when they extended their stay here without obtaining the necessary visa. But what about the legal obligations of the tens of thousands of individuals and companies that hired them? If the workers are called “illegals,” why are we not referring to those who hire them as “illegal companies” or “illegal business owners” or “illegal employers”? Are they not guilty of breaking the law?
The moral argument for solving the predicament of undocumented workers is summed up in a simple phrase in the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal.” The language couldn’t be plainer; it does not say or even imply that only citizens and legal residents are equal. Yet undocumented immigrants are not treated or thought of as equals.
This fundamental inequality must change, and change often begins through language. Words matter. Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor notably decided to use the term “undocumented immigrant” in a written opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court last December. It marked the first use of the term by a justice, though the term “illegal immigrant” has appeared in many decisions. This is the way change occurs: word by word.
When I speak with American politicians, I often ask whether they are willing to use the word “undocumented” instead of “illegal.”
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, for instance, almost always used the word “undocumented” during his 2008 presidential campaign. So did Barack Obama.
During his presidency, Obama has rarely used the term “illegal,” when referring to immigrants. An exception: his July 1 speech on immigration reform at American University in Washington, D.C., in which he reminded us that we have “always defined ourselves as a nation of immigrants.”
Convincing Obama and McCain to use the right words is a start, but it is not enough. We must convince Congress and the American political elite to follow their example. Only then will ordinary Americans follow suit.
When I interviewed Newt Gingrich, an influential Republican and former speaker of the House of Representatives, I asked him if he would be willing to stop using the word “illegal” when referring to undocumented immigrants.
“I would be happy to use the word ‘undocumented,”‘ said Gingrich, “as long as we can reach an agreement (in which) we get everybody into a system of legality.”
I also asked the chair of the Republican Party, Michael Steele, why he uses the term “illegal aliens.” “Well,” he said, “if they are here illegally, I’ve got to call it what it is.”
Hopefully, Steele and others in the political arena will decide very soon to speak of these immigrants with respect and even gratitude. It is no secret that the undocumented contribute much more to the economy than they take from it. They deserve to live free from fear and persecution in this country of equals.
This freedom will come when we change the language we use to describe the undocumented. Immigration reform depends on it.
By Jorge Ramos Avalos
© 2010 Jorge Ramos
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate
(Jun 29, 2010)