Regardless of how many times people use the phrase “illegal immigrants,” human beings cannot ever be “illegal.”
A bill recently introduced in the ASUC Senate aims to address the misuse of the word “illegal” as it relates to immigration. The bill urges the campus community to drop the “I-word” when discussing undocumented immigrants. The bill, authored by ASUC Senator Sean Tan and his legislative director Elioth Gomez, specifically calls out the “racially charged” nature of characterizing immigrants as “illegal,” and further explains the politics of fear behind the term’s origin in right-wing politics. The legislation, although entirely symbolic, is important because it spells out the animus behind and problematic nature of characterizing groups of people as “illegal.”
The Daily Californian supports this assessment.
In October of last year, this board decided to cease referring to immigrants of any citizenship status as “illegal,” making official what had already been an encouraged practice within the newsroom. We explained in an editor’s note at the time that labeling immigrants as illegal “unnecessarily (offended) our readership” and that using the term “undocumented” was more accurate.
More specifically, it’s not just that the word illegal is offensive — it isn’t even as accurate as more palatable alternatives. As the ASUC Senate bill notes, referring to immigrants as illegal is “legally inaccurate since being out of status is a civil rather than criminal infraction.” It’s not just a socially responsible practice for media outlets to adjust their wording — it’s also about using a more precise definition when talking about an incredibly complex issue. But striving to be as exact as possible in language, while still an important goal, is a less significant reason for why we should drop the I-word from our discourse.
Undocumented immigrants face a number of unique challenges. According to findings from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 57 percent of undocumented immigrants in California live in poverty. More than half do not have health insurance, sitting on the precipice of financial ruin if they suffer an accident or contract a serious illness. It’s also worth pointing out that nationwide, undocumented immigrants collectively pay billions of dollars in taxes for benefits they don’t receive.
To put it bluntly, the stigma of being an undocumented immigrant extends far beyond how a newspaper refers to them or how a single college campus (even if its is UC Berkeley) talks about immigration.
That said, the senate bill is an important step forward. While dropping the I-word may represent only a little progress in the right direction, it could be the first step toward larger reform.