Advocates for immigrants are calling on the New York Times, arguably the most respected newspaper in the U.S., to stop using the term "illegal immigrant." They argue that the term is not only an inaccurate description of unauthorized migrants but also promotes racial stereotypes. On Oct. 1, Mónica Novoa, coordinator of the Drop the I-Word campaign, wrote an open letter to the New York Times calling into question the paper's use of "illegal immigrant." In particular, Novoa takes issue with the rationale of Times' staffers who argue that the term is "neutral."
"The term is far from neutral, given that it was popularized by anti-immigrant restrictionists and recommended for use by Republican strategist Frank Luntz in an effort to encourage an understanding of immigrants as 'criminals' and create a politically useful division among voters," Novoa states in her letter.
A number of news agencies, including the Miami Herald, the San Antonio Express-News, Fox News Latino, ABC News and the Huffington Post, no longer use the term "illegal immigrant." They've likely not only made this move to be culturally sensitive but also because the term has real shortcomings. For one, "illegal" is usually not a term used to characterize human beings. As Novoa points out:
"Whenever someone's actions are in violation of the law, that does not make a person's entire existence 'illegal.' We know she was convicted of a crime and still we don't call Martha Stewart an 'illegal businesswoman.' Firearms can be 'illegal.' Contraband can be 'illegal.' A person cannot be described as such."
But that's not all. Advocates for immigrants also argue that the term "illegal immigrant" has been used to paint all immigrants, specifically Latino ones, with a broad brush. They say the term has resulted in all Latino immigrants, and sometimes all Latinos, being viewed by the public as "illegal." That means people buy into the notion that Hispanics have no rights, which has led to hate crimes and police brutality against Latinos as well as unlawful arrests and detainment of them in places as disparate as Maricopa County, Ariz., and East Haven, Conn.
According to a report by the National Hispanic Media Council called the "Impact of Media Stereotypes on Opinions and Attitudes Towards Latinos," the American public views the terms "Latinos" and "illegal immigrants" as interchangeable. Additional studies have found that nearly half of all Latinos find the term "illegal immigrant" offensive. If retiring the I-word will lessen stereotypes about Latinos and immigrants, why not drop the term in favor of, say, "unauthorized migrant" or another term that doesn't dehumanize a group of people based on citizenship status?