Words Matter: The Immigrant from Another Planet

Whoever said “sticks and stones may break  your bones, but words will never hurt you” lived in a hut in the wilderness and never spoke to anyone, least of all himself.  Words transport life. In the 24-hour multi-media news cycle, where words race through the Internet like super sonic weapons, words can do more than wound. Words, at their worst, trivialize, dehumanize and marginalize.  Then there are words like “illegals,” which is all those things AND ungrammatical. “Illegal” is also proliferating. A search of Gooogle Blogs conducted Jan. 2, 2010 yielded 334,000 hits for the term.

Laws of course, should be respected. The irony is that many of those who rail against “illegals” are also proponents of English-only laws. If only they did speak English.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists pressed news outlets anew in 2009 to expunge the term “illegals” from their text, unless it appeared in quotes. The NAHJ has had a long-standing request that the media remove the term “illegal alien” from style books. Unity ’94, the joint meeting of the Asian, Latino, Black and Native American journalists groups that took place in Georgia, jointly pushed news executives to change the accepted newsroom lexicon on the term “alien.” The Chicago Tribune and the Dallas Morning News were among those that led the way.  The four groups approved the following joint resolution, which I authored and discussed on NPR’s Latino USA program.
“Except in direct quotations, do not use the phrase illegal alien or the word alien, in copy or in headlines, to refer to citizens of a foreign country who have come to the U.S. with no documents to show that they are legally entitled to visit, work or live here. Such terms are considered pejorative, not only by those to whom they are applied, but by many people of the same ethnic and national backgrounds who are in the U.S. legally.” The NAHJ’a Resource Guide for Journalists discusses these terms and advises using undocumented immigrant instead of illegal immigrant.

Media companies may not agree, though U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor does. Her Dec. 9, 2009 Supreme Court opinion in Mohawk Industries Inc. v. Carpenter, is the first Supreme Court decision to use the term undocumented immigrant and undocumented worker. Other Supreme Court decisions have used the term undocumented, including Plyler v. Doe, a 1982 case filled with references to “undocumented children,” “undocumented aliens” and “undocumented school-age children.” The Court’s use of “undocumented,” which some critics charges is euphemistic, is not unprecedented, though apparently, it took the first Puerto Rican justice on the court to put the two words, “undocumented” and “immigrant” together, according to a Jan. 2, 2010 search of the Westlaw database.

Undocumented may be fine language for the nation’s highest court. That hasn’t stopped the nation’s most prominent media outlets, many of whom see “undocumented” as jargon.

If that’s the case, why don’t we refer to motorists who drive with their licenses suspended as “illegal drivers?” Or how about those driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more? They are breaking the law too. We should say they are “illegal drivers,” rather than refer to them euphemistically as “DUI” or “driving under the influence,” which has a mystical connotation, or as they say in North Carolina, “DWI,” which means “driving while impaired.”

We should at least agree that an illegal alien is an immigrant from another planet. We may need to use that term correctly some day. That’ll be the day.

Listen to Latino USA:  The Radio Journal of News and Culture:

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