Dormroom Debate: Can an immigrant really be called "illegal?"
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    Last week, The Associated Press announced that it would no longer sanction the phrase "illegal immigrant" as a part of AP Style, the grammatical guideline for the organization. Kathleen Carroll, AP's senior vice president and executive editor, explained that only actions, not people, should be called illegal in her justification of the change. Did the AP make a necessary step forward in the midst of the immigration reform deabte, or a step too far? Our writers decide. Photos of the authors by Sunny Kang / North by Northwestern.

    Photo by Sunny Kang/North by Northwestern

    I’m a Medill sophomore double majoring in American history and I’ve been liberal as long as I could remember.

    While growing up in the far suburbs of New York City in a devoutly Democratic family certainly has its influences, the ideas of my parents’ party have always just made sense to me, even when we’ve butted heads about just how far these ideas should be taken.

    To me, it makes sense to have a government that invests in and financially protects its citizens as long as they meet their end of the bargain. It makes sense to me to have a government that guarantees not only freedom of religion, but also freedom from religion. It makes sense to me to have a government that’s more concerned with preserving peace than projecting power. 

    But more than anything, I believe if politicians focused more on the good of their country and less on the good of their party, the actions that they’d take would make a lot more sense. 

    Any person, regardless of who they are or where they are from, has the capacity to do wonderful or awful things. He or she can love and hate, help and hurt, laugh and cry, and work and play. He or she can be good or be bad. However, no person's existence is illegal simply because they committed a crime, especially when this crime is historically unprecedented and frequently generalized.

    Last week, The Associated Press changed its official grammatical guidelines to reflect this, marking an important milestone in the path toward immigration reform and understanding in the United States. While the landscape of journalism has changed drastically over the course of the past decade, the importance of AP Style as a template for many publications, including this one, has prevailed. 

    The debate surrounding illegal immigration and how to handle it will roar onward, kept alive in a multitude of stories by the AP published in print and online. While the writers of these reports will refrain from using "illegal immigrant" outside of quoting sources, this may not make an immediate difference in the way Americans perceive this complicated and controversial issue.

    So why, then, is the AP's decision to throw "illegal immigrant" by the wayside so important?

    First and foremost, it recognizes a critical distinction that the term in question fails to address: A person can do illegal things, but a person him or herself cannot be illegal.

    In fact, the idea of illegal immigration is largely a modern creation. Throughout its history, the United States government has curbed immigration through quotas based on culture and county of origin. When the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed in 1965, it repealed all nationality-based quotas and instituted a visa system with hemispheric quotas. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which outlawed knowingly hiring "illegal aliens." It was followed by three more measures in 1990, 1996, and 2002 that augmented border security measures and imposed stricter restrictions on undocumented immigrants.

    On a purely legal basis, immigrants who fail to file and acquire the necessary paperwork are breaking the law, so the illegal immigrant moniker makes sense when you consider how people who murder are called murderers and people who rape are called rapists. But even if you disregard the clear difference in magnitude among the three crimes, the now-discarded name dehumanizes someone who committed a minor crime for likely a much larger purpose.

    Undocumented immigrants are fathers and mothers who escape economic and social turmoil to provide a better life for their children. Undocumented immigrants are people who choose to leave everything they know and love so they can work to support their families. Undocumented immigrants are foreign-born children who were taken by their parents into the United States when they were too young to know any better. 

    And it is for that reason that the usage of the "illegal immigrant" label is far too general and dehumanizing. Reducing a human being to such fails to recognize the unique trials and tribulations of each person's journey. By understanding the complexities of different immigrant stories, we can understand the complexities of illegal immigration as a whole.

    When it comes to the label "illegal immigrant," it's not just a matter of technicality: It's a matter of humanity. Regardless of where they came from, how they came here, and for what reasons they did so, immigrants of any means deserve to be treated not as statistics, but as human beings.

    After all, at the end of the day, no human being is illegal.

    Photo by Sunny Kang/North by Northwestern

    I’m a Medill freshman from Cleveland, Ohio. I consider myself very socially conservative, and my Catholic upbringing certainly helped shaped this. My individual life experiences and introspection have strengthened these foundations, so my beliefs are the product of both religious and personal means. 

    I am slightly more moderate when it comes to fiscal matters, but I still fall within the realm of conservatism. Both my dad and maternal grandfather lost their fathers at a young age, so their stories of hard work and self-determination to make their own living have inspired me. I firmly believe in the power of the human spirit, and the oft-cited Chinese parable of “Give a man a fish ... teach a man to fish ...” perfectly sums up my belief on the government’s proper role. I am not opposed on principle to most federal programs, but I believe that their aim should be to make themselves unnecessary over time. The government should focus less on instantly solving its citizens’ problems and focus more on helping the people forge their own solutions.

    Throughout the course of American history, certain words and phrases have become justifiable taboos for our culture. Whether racial-based or just culturally insensitive, these utterances have been legally (and rightfully) removed from the vernacular of formal conversation and printed media. 

    Why are “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented immigrant” joining the ranks of these linguistic bans?

    Last week, The Associated Press announced that its reporters are no longer permitted to use those terms in their stories.  This move is frankly unnecessary and extremely confusing. The term “illegal immigrant” is one devoid of any inherent racial substance, so any discriminatory connotation it might carry is a matter of individual thought, not societal stereotyping.

    One of the most common arguments proposed against the term “illegal immigrant” is that actions are illegal, not people. This accusation of de-humanization is normatively understandable, but the argument is flawed in terms of grammar and even makes a stereotype of its own. First, the word “immigrant” refers to someone who has undertaken a very specific action, namely immigration. As this country’s laws stand today, certain forms of entering the country are illegal. Thus, there is nothing ignorant or incorrect about identifying an immigrant who entered the country via legitimately illegal means as such. 

    In fact, by claiming that “illegal immigrant” is disrespectful to the people it describes, opponents of the term are making two assumptions that are dangerous, and possibly even discriminatory.

    First of all, the “person is not illegal” presumption does not hold true across the entirety of society. I realize that it is much easier to use abrasive terms like “illegal” when referring to hard crimes like murder and burglary. I understand that many of the undocumented people in the United States today are young children and elderly who are unlikely to commit crimes. However, that does not change the legal status of the actions they participated in (at least for now), so there is no sidestepping the core of the issue. When a popular athlete is caught with performance-enhancing drugs, we still call them an “illegal steroid user.” Even if they’re the nicest and most charitable person in the athletic world, the term still applies to them. This wide array of connotations shows that the word “illegal” is purely a modifier for a specific action. It is not intended as a reduction of a person’s fundamental humanity, nor should it be taken as one.

    This is where the opponents of the phrase make a large misstep. There are two sides to how immigrants regard this facet of their identity, and removing the phrase offends both on some level. For those who wish to move beyond the label and become known simply as “American” and for those who have a great deal of pride being part of America’s melting pot, the move hints that being called an immigrant is somehow disrespectful. This is a nation that was founded and shaped immensely by immigrants; the term also used to remember those who migrated legally and should not be sacrificed to promote overly-cautious sensitivity to those who didn’t follow the law.

    There is another logistical aspect of this move by the Associated Press which is troublesome. For the average newspaper reader who might not be fully aware of all the intricate details of immigration reform, seeing a brand-new appellation for illegal immigrants might be confusing. Even though the articles will still refer to the same core of affected people, a sudden change in how they are named could very easily lead to a belief that they are entirely different. Since there is nothing inherently racist or unethical about the soon-to-be extinct term “illegal immigrant,” I fail to see why a massive journalistic overhaul is required. It merely furthers the same stereotyping at which the AP is wagging its finger. The actual legal issues of immigration reform should be the nation’s focus right now, not the language used in newspapers to describe it. 


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