Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
The mainstream press should stop using the adjective “illegal” to describe immigrants.
Tagging this label on immigrants without proper documentation has become part of the American lexicon. But the word has long-lasting repercussions not only on undocumented immigrants living in the United States, but the ethnicities usually associated with them.
Immigrant-rights groups have urged the media to drop the label, but there has been some pushback.
Recently, veteran New York Times reporter Julia Preston published a post about immigration where she asserted that the term “illegal immigrant” was “accurate,” and that we “shouldn’t be banning an accurate term.”
While her statement certainly meets the requirements of journalistic objectivity that those in the profession should aspire to, it ignores the politically charged context in which the term is used. “Illegal” is certainly not a term that undocumented immigrants chose for themselves. It has been imposed on them (and the reading public) as a defining term. This definition, long advocated for by the most virulent of the anti-immigrant crowd, i.e., the Joe Arpaios of the world, is arguably biased.
In legal terms, “illegal immigrant” is contradictory, since an “immigrant” is defined as one who has been lawfully admitted for permanent residence. If you have broken the law by overstaying your visa, for instance, you cannot be considered an immigrant in the eyes of the law.
What’s more, the phrase “illegal immigrant” has been used in history as a way to stigmatize desperate people who are forced to leave their own country for economic or political reasons. In the 1930s, for instance, the British used it to refer to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution and entering Palestine “illegally.”
In the strict sense of the word, “illegal” can be used to describe someone who is making a prohibited left turn or who knowingly makes a false statement on a federal or state income tax return. These illegal acts don’t seem to hound the offenders as they try to live their ordinary lives, and no one complains that emergency rooms have to treat careless drivers using taxpayer money.
The term “illegal” also overlooks the circumstances that drive many undocumented workers here. A new documentary based on “Harvest of Empire,” a book written by New York journalist Juan Gonzalez, makes the case that many undocumented people come to the United States as a result of our country’s foreign policy.
Should the United States be tried for its part in causing the immigration of millions of Latin Americans who fled dictators friendly with Washington? How illegal are our own actions abroad?
Well, maybe that’s going too far. And that’s exactly the reason the mainstream media, and the rest of us, should refrain from using “illegal” to describe people whose story we don’t even know.
Last I heard, in this country, we believe in the presumption of innocence.
Ed Morales is a contributor to the New York Times and Newsday and is the author of “Living in Spanglish.” He can be reached at email@example.com.
You can read more pieces from The Progressive Media Project by clicking here.