People are not illegal

The Associated Press has taken the bold move of proscribing the use of “illegal immigrant” in an update to its widely used style guide.

Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant.

Even though (if I had the power) I’d burn all style guides including AP’s — they provide an unnecessary regimentation to writers whose attention would be better focused simply on writing well rather than in conformity with the petty dictates of a style guide — I think AP’s decision is good if it has the effect of making journalists think more carefully about the implications of the language they use. So far, I have yet to see evidence of this effect.

“AP apparently now feels that there’s no acceptable way to refer to people who are in the country illegally. Neither ‘undocumented immigrant’ nor ‘unauthorized immigrant,’ is acceptable, and neither is anything else. Labels are flatly not allowed, despite the fact that we label people all the time. Kevin Drum is a blogger. Barack Obama is a politician. Etc.” writes Mother Jones blogger, Kevin Drum.

“Some argue that use of the word ‘illegal’ carries a negative connotation and suggests criminality,” writes MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell, as though it’s debatable whether the term really is loaded in this way.

Although AP appears to be rejecting all labels, it seems to me that it isn’t labels per se that are the issue — it is labels that people would generally not apply to themselves.

Why would someone who grew up in this country — as many such immigrants have — and has known no other home, call themselves ‘illegal’ or accept such being tarred with such a slur? “Illegal immigrant,” just like every other pejorative, is a finger and a scowl directed at someone else.

“Someone who crosses our borders illegally is here illegally,” Republican Sen. John McCain said. “You can call it whatever you want to, but it’s illegal.”

The head of Homeland Security has no objection to the use of the term “illegal immigrant.”

When speaking to reporters, it said: “I don’t really get caught up in the vocabulary wars. They are immigrants who are here illegally. It’s an illegal immigrant.” The entity in charge of immigration control also said: “They are immigrants who are here without documents. That’s an undocumented immigrant.” (I’m assuming Janet Napolitano won’t mind being referred to as “it” since it apparently doesn’t see anything dehumanizing in referring to people as, “It’s an illegal immigrant.”)

Although it may come as news to John McCain, a lot of people living in America illegally, actually crossed the border legally. They came into the U.S. through New York or some other point of entry, were fully documented with a valid passport and a valid entry visa but instead of leaving before their visa expired, they decided to stay. Many of these “illegals” are invisible. Invisible why? Because they are white.

“Illegal immigrant” is more than a technical description of someone’s status in the eyes of the immigration system. It’s code for unwelcome Latino. Even though the people being referred to harvest our food, care for our children, mow our lawns, wash our cars, clean our tables, and make up one of the most productive segments of American society — and even though in terms of their own ancestry which traces back thousands of years on this continent, these are to my eye the real Americans — these are people that much of white America still denigrates by branding them “illegal.”

AP’s move might not do much to elevate the status of people who deserve to be raised up rather than put down, but it’s a nudge in the right direction.

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