“Illegal” is NOT a neutral term, linguists say

So a group of 24 linguistic scholars have joined the effort to remove the term “illegal” immigrant from our national vocabulary.  The progressive magazine ColorLines launched a campaign late last year to “Drop the I Word” after a series of articles showed that in recent years

there has been a steady increase in language that frames unauthorized immigrants as a criminal problem. References to “illegals,” “illegal immigrants” and their rhetorical variants now dominate the speech of both major political parties, as well as news media coverage of immigration.”  —Colorlines, “How the Right Made Racism Sound Fair,” 9/13/11

Linguist Jonathan Rosa (U Mass Amherst) wrote a statement last week signed by 23 other scholars and the AAA Committee for Human Rights that points out the significance of language in shaping human action, and calls for reconsideration of the term by journalists and media.  In part, they point out:

A person diagnosed with cancer is not described as cancerous; however, “illegal” becomes a way of characterizing not just one’s migration status, but also one’s entire person. This perspective has galvanized a campaign to “Drop the I Word.”

The “Drop the I Word” campaign resonates with a central tenet of Linguistic Anthropology: language is a not merely a passive way of referring to or describing things in the world, but a crucial form of social action. Thus we need to ask: What forms of social action take place in and through popular representations of immigration?

One of the most noteworthy characteristics of immigration discourses is the naturalization of concepts such as “illegality” and the construction of immigration laws on as rigid, unchanging phenomena. Scholarship focused on this issue points out that “legal immigrant” is a redundant concept and “illegal immigrant” is oxymoronic, since the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act defines immigrants as people who have been lawfully admitted for permanent residence. The use of “migrant” throughout this statement reflects this insight. Moreover, immigration law has undergone dramatic shifts throughout U.S. history, with straightforward pathways to citizenship for some, but lengthy and laborious roads for others. The dynamic nature of this history is obscured by the notion that migrants simply opt to be legal or illegal. In fact, authorization should be understood primarily as a matter of political will rather than the individual choices of migrants themselves.

This misleading construction of illegality is tied to the circulation of troublesome stereotypes about the migration status of different ethnoracial groups. Specifically, assessments of illegality are often associated with unreliable signs of one’s migration status, such as language, religion, and physical appearance. These presumptions lead not only to law enforcers’ regular misidentification of people’s migration status based on wrongful assumptions about ethnolinguistic markers, but also to the broader public stigmatization of those markers.

The complete statement is available here

And the ColorLines campaign is here

And a petition here by Helen Chavez (widow of Cesar) to the New York Times to stop using the term (thanks to Maribel Martinez)

2 thoughts on ““Illegal” is NOT a neutral term, linguists say”

  1. I remember writing to a newspaper a few years back about the problem with the dominance in understanding the immigration debate merely thru a lens of “illegal” which only assumes people as outlaw and criminals and therefore implies that they should not be here (U.S). I was wondering what if any terminology do scholars feel would be “sensitive enough” that would “accurately” capture another “positionality” that does not imply criminality to conceptualize of this political debate?

    I think a good start would be to develop a language that speaks from the various motivations and circumstances that motivate folks to travel across man-made borders as better descriptors of the immigration debate.

    Jerry Diaz
    Grad Student

  2. An interesting idea–to strike the word or make it a “no-no” word so as to effect the way in which we think about immigration.

    I think Lisa Lowe’s 1997 book, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Politics, tracks for us the development of the vocabulary of criminality in ways that continue to shape how we talk and think about migrants. It’s not a new or recent phenomenon; but one that is part of a historical process, particularly connected to 19th and 20th century ways. Another great link: https://www.umass.edu/complit/aclanet/USMigrat.html


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