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

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Forty years ago the UN General Assembly passed a resolution against "hostile environmental modification techniques...

The beauty and the tragedy of everyday life in a war zone.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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