What is the morally right term to use for undocumented immigrants?

Fox News favors the word “illegals” in its headlines. Recent headlines read: “Confirmed: Feds Ordered Not to Arrest Illegals Coming from Mexico” and “Securing America: Illegals Roundup.”


Media Matters reported that Fox News has a “pattern of using the pejorative and unprofessional term ‘illegals’ to refer to immigrants in the United States without legal status.”


Fox News, however, is not alone. The Washington Times uses the term in its headlines. OneNewsNow.com, a division of the American Family News Network, puts “illegals” in its titles.


One would not be surprised that Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio would use such language. But what about New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hardly a cultural conservative? He used the word “illegals” in late April.


Others use the phrase “illegal immigrants.”


The flagship of American newspapers, the New York Times, does. It did so in a major exposé of anti-immigration leader John Tanton, who “helped start all three major national groups fighting to reduce immigration, legal and illegal.”


These groups – NumbersUSA, FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform) and Center for Immigration Studies – all use the term illegal immigration with a loud emphasis on both illegality and immigrant – a euphemism for outsider.


Miguel De La Torre, an EthicsDaily.com columnist, prefers the terms “undocumented” and “undocumented immigrant.”


In his book “Trails of Hope and Terror,” De La Torre uses the terms “undocumented,” “undocumented immigrants” and “migrants.”


What word or phrase should goodwill people of faith use? And why?


The National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) called on the nation’s news media several years ago 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,” read a NAHJ press release. “NAHJ calls on the media to never use ‘illegals’ in headlines.”


“Shortening the term in this way also stereotypes undocumented people who are in the United States as having committed a crime. Under current U.S. immigration law, being an undocumented immigrant is not a crime, it is a civil violation. Furthermore, an estimated 40 percent of all undocumented people living in the U.S. are visa overstayers, meaning they did not illegally cross the U.S. border,” said NAHJ.


NAHJ said the preferred term is “undocumented immigrant.”


In an interview with Catholic Bishop Anthony Taylor for EthicsDaily.com’s forthcoming documentary on immigration, Taylor explained why he rejects the term “illegal.”


“From my standpoint of ministering to them spiritually, their legal status has no relevance to their belonging to our faith community,” said Taylor. “They’ve not violated God’s law. There is an infraction of United States law. If they come in with a visa and overstay it, it’s just a civil infraction.”


“We’re not talking about crime,” said the Arkansas bishop. “We’re talking about a misdemeanor violation of the code.”

He noted that when children grow up in families where they hear their parents called illegal or criminal, the concept of criminality is diminished.


“What is criminal in our immigration issue today is not people crossing the border, but rather legislators putting in place or leaving in place a situation that is manifestly unjust,” said Taylor.


He said he preferred the words “undocumented immigrants” or “immigrants.”


Language discloses one’s moral perspective and frames the political debate. Using the word “illegals” or the phrase “illegal immigrant” paints unauthorized or undocumented people as criminals.


It’s uncertain when our society started affixing the concept of criminality to Hispanic immigrants.


What is certain is that our society does not affix illegality or criminality to other people who break the law.


For example, we do not refer to those who break the speed limit as “illegals.” When alumni break the ban on drinking alcohol on campus before and during college football games, we don’t call them “illegals” or “illegal alumni.”


Are jaywalkers, golf betters and underage drinkers called “illegals”?


What about those who walk their dogs without cleaning up after them? Copyright infringement? Texting while driving?


The selectivity with which our society applies the word “illegal” to the immigrant community makes one wonder about the real motive behind such language – and the real agenda with our politics.


Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.

Share This