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Dropping ‘illegal’ from undocumented immigration

Tyanna SlobeEarlier this month the Associated Press dropped the term “illegal immigrant” from the 2013 style guide. This is an important move toward ending institutionalized racism toward minority groups in the United States, and more importantly a stand against institutionalized dehumanization of undocumented immigrants.

A person cannot be illegal. A person’s actions can be illegal, but human beings cannot be. Referring to someone as “illegal” is dehumanizing because it does not recognize them as a person, but solely as an action — an action that is often out of their control, as in the case of undocumented children brought into the US by their parents.


The dehumanization that comes along with referring to undocumented immigrants as “illegals” is largely associated with race. People of color are disproportionately negatively affected by the dehumanizing use of the term “illegal” — regardless of whether they are an undocumented immigrant. In particular, the widespread use of the term “illegal” negatively affects society’s views toward undocumented immigrants and people of color as a whole.

It is perhaps for this reason that in 2010 the group Colorlines began leading the fight to Drop the I-Word in the media, with these same motives behind their reasoning: the term is dehumanizing, it’s racist and leads to racist stereotyping, and it undermines our nation’s “innocent until proven guilty” legal system.

Even rapists and murderers on trial are referred to by the media as having “allegedly committed rape” or “allegedly committing murder.”  Yet, I cannot count the number of times that I have walked around in Old Town on a weekend and heard someone yell something to the tune of “go back to Mexico, illegal” to people of color innocently going to the bars. I have yet to hear anyone yell anything like “get to jail, rapist.”

People seem to not like being called racist because they occasionally say something racist, much like people do not like being called “illegals” because of their skin color or language.

Similarly, many people don’t think that covertly racist language has overtly racist consequences. Studies prove otherwise.

A 2012 study by the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Latino Decisions found that despite the fact that only an estimated 18 percent of Latinos in the United States are undocumented, 30 percent of non-Latino Americans believe that most Latinos in the United States are here without documentation. Likewise, 44 percent of non-Latinos polled reported thinking of Latinos as “refusing to learn English” and 50 percent thought of Latinos as “less educated.” Fascinating stereotypes — and what’s more, these stereotypes are shaped by the media individuals consume.

The same groups found that the type of media non-Latinos consume also affects their perception of Latinos. Among listeners of conservative talk radio, 41 percent reported thinking that Latinos are “taking their jobs away;” only 19 percent of NPR listeners agreed.

The media’s persistent dehumanization of people by referring to them as “illegal” succeeds in “other”-ing immigrants and people of color. It creates an “us vs. them” dichotomy that is associated with perceptions of criminal activity. It creates racism.

As if people’s racist perceptions of people of color were not enough to dissuade you into thinking that racist language has racist consequences, consider the hate-crimes committed against people of color.


In 2008 Marcelo Lucerno — an immigrant to New York from Ecuador — was assaulted, stabbed and murdered. As he was being murdered, Lucerno was taunted by his assailants, who referred to him as a “f****** illegal.”

While the United States is in dire need of immigration reform, that is not what this article is about. This is about the dehumanization and racism that result from calling human beings “illegals.”

The Collegian is a frequent offender when it comes to referring to undocumented immigrants as “illegal.” I ask my peers to follow the AP in “Dropping the I-Word” from our publication. Humans do not deserve to be dehumanized, no matter their legal status. Undocumented immigrants, like those among our nation who immigrated in a pre-document era, are people. Let’s treat them that way.

Tyanna Slobe is a senior English Language and Spanish double major. Her column appears every Tuesday in the Collegian. Letters and Feedback can be sent to

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