The United Methodist Church won a moral victory – in a way – when Associated Press (AP) announced that it was changing its stylebook to stop sanctioning the use of the term “illegal immigrant.”
Methodists began their “Drop the I-Word” campaign in December 2010 to end the use of the word “illegal” to describe undocumented immigrants.

The General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR) of the United Methodist Church explained its initiative: “This is a campaign to eliminate inflammatory words that lead to acts of hate and injustice against immigrant people. It is a campaign about words.”

Careful to say that the campaign was about language, not legislation, GCORR said that it believed “it is important to delineate between a criminal act and a person.”

Rather than “illegal,” GCORR favored the term “undocumented.”

When “Gospel Without Borders” was screened during the Democratic National Convention at Saint Peter’s Catholic Church, Minerva Carcaño, the Los Angeles-area bishop for the United Methodist Church, called on delegates of faith and faith leaders to join Methodists and stop using the “i-word” to describe undocumented immigrants.

As the panel moderator, I noted that President Obama and Republican leaders continued to favor the “i-word.” That’s “illegal immigrant.”

They still do – even after all the hoopla this year about comprehensive immigration reform.

Janet Napolitano, secretary for Homeland Security, even advocated at the end of March for the use of the phrase “illegal immigrant.” She said, “They are immigrants who are here illegally, that’s an illegal immigrant.”

Both the liberal New York Times and Washington Post agree with the liberal Obama administration that it’s morally acceptable to use a term of criminality – illegal – to describe a person. Both papers have rejected AP’s change.

For its part, AP explained, “The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term ‘illegal immigrant’ or the use of ‘illegal’ to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that ‘illegal’ should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

AP said, “Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.”

AP’s decision was rejected in some quarters and criticized in others.

Media Research Center, a right-wing organization, called what AP did a “politically-correct mumble.”

A columnist for the conservative Washington Times described AP’s decision as “baroque,” while the editorial page editor for the New York Post said, “Maybe they should call them schmillegal schmimigrants.”

In an editorial almost two years ago, I explored the morally right term to use for the undocumented.

The editorial noted a statement by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), which called on the nation’s news media to stop using the word “illegals.”

“Using the word in this way is grammatically incorrect and crosses the line by criminalizing the person, not the action they are purported to have committed,” said NAHJ. “NAHJ calls on the media to never use ‘illegals’ in headlines.”

NAHJ said the preferred term is “undocumented immigrant.”

Language matters. NAHJ knows that. AP recognizes it. United Methodists too know the power of language.

Isn’t it time for the rest of the Christian community to separate itself from the political liberals on one hand and the political conservatives on the other by dropping the words “illegals” and “illegal immigrants” from their vocabulary?

In the debate over comprehensive immigration reform, Washington jockeys for future political power, while Big Labor and Big Business arm-wrestle over who will benefit the most in terms of future economic gain.

The church has a different duty, a moral role, on the immigration front. Part of that moral duty is to challenge the negative narratives and half-truths about the undocumented. Part of that task is to change the language in our culture.

Let’s drop the “i-word” in church and community conversations.

Robert Parham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

Editor’s Note: If your church would like to explore the issue of immigration reform from a moral perspective and learn what Christians are doing to address the plight of the undocumented, consider ordering the nonpartisan documentary “Gospel Without Borders.”

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