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What’s Illegals?

October 25, 2010

by Sergio Cisneros

Words we use have the power to signal the past and foretell the future. The way they define a situation or a problem has the potential to decide its outcome. For this reason, it is important that people stop using the term “illegal” when referring to undocumented immigrants in the United States. This change is a fundamental first step to immigration reform.

Many Americans speak casually of “illegals” and “illegal aliens” when discussing undocumented immigrants. When these terms are used, they make it seem as if criminals and terrorists are arriving on our doorstep — a total misconception of the 11 million people who, for the most part, seek the kinds of jobs that Americans avoid.

It’s true that these immigrants did break the law when they entered the U.S. without documents, and when they extended their stay here without obtaining the necessary visa, but what about the legal obligations of the numerous individuals and companies that hired them? If the workers are called “illegals,” why are we not referring to those who hire them as “illegal companies” or “illegal business owners” or “illegal employers”? Are they not guilty of breaking the law?

The moral argument for solving the predicament of undocumented workers is summed up in a simple phrase in the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal.” The language couldn’t be plainer; it does not say or even imply that only citizens and legal residents are equal. Yet undocumented immigrants are not treated or thought of as equals.

This fundamental inequality must change, and change often begins through language. Words matter. Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor notably decided to use the term “undocumented immigrant” in a written opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court last December. It marked the first use of the term by a justice, though the term “illegal immigrant” has appeared in many decisions. This is the way change occurs: word by word.

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona almost always used the word “undocumented” during his 2008 presidential campaign. So did Barack Obama.

During his presidency, Obama has rarely used the term “illegal,” when referring to immigrants. An exception is his July 1 speech on immigration reform at American University in Washington, D.C., in which he also reminded us that we have “always defined ourselves as a nation of immigrants.”

Convincing Obama and McCain to use the right words is a start, but it is not enough. We must convince Congress and the American political elite to follow their example. Only then will ordinary Americans follow suit.

Hopefully, politicians and Americans will decide very soon to speak of these immigrants with respect and even gratitude. It is no secret that the undocumented contribute much more to the economy than they take from it. They deserve to live free from fear and persecution in this country of equals. This freedom will come when we change the language we use to describe the undocumented. Immigration reform depends on it.

Sergio Cisneros is a sophomore political science major at George Fox University. Sergio is from Klamath Falls and interned in the Washington, DC office of Senator Jeff Merkley during the summer of 2010

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