The term “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant” is not acceptable in mainstream rhetoric. Not from anti-immigrant advocates and especially not from immigrant rights supporters. I sometimes hear conversations that allude to using the term “illegal” to gain support for immigration reform from people in the ‘middle’. While the argument sounds logical, the term “illegal” was inserted into the mainstream by anti-immigrant groups, and every time we use it, beyond criminalizing people, we perpetuate a racist framework.
The term “illegal alien” is fairly new. When the 14th amendment was ratified in the 1800s, the term did not exist. After 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed, which redressed previous laws that favored immigrants from Europe, terms like “illegal Immigrant” or “illegal alien” were inserted into mainstream discourse by white nationalists. Those that saw this country as a homeland for white people – not only to be controlled economically and politically by whites, but to look white – were disturbed by the influx of people from the global south after the 1965 Act.
It was intentional on the side of anti-immigrant leaders to label immigrants of color as “alien” and as the “other”. The term “illegal” was part of the effort to repeal anti-discrimination laws passed during the civil rights era, and to enact a set of legislation and enforcement that criminalized and restricted immigrants of color from entering the country. The language created by white nationalists is reflected in so many of the comment sections of blogs and articles on immigration. Just recently, Dream Act students blasted USA Today reporter Emily Bazar when she used the term “illegal student” in an article.
Language constructs reality. So why do I find it disturbing when I hear strategies about gaining support for immigration reform by using the term “illegal”? Not only does it irk me to use the framework and language of white nationalists, but it is a way of consenting to bigotry.
While we must always act strategically and gauge our goals based on the actual political climate, when we take up the language of anti-immigrant white nationalists it is not concession; it is putting our hands up and claiming defeat. This is a time to stick to what we know is right, to use the term “undocumented”, to fight for what is true and real in the face of political games and gains. If we do, we will have laid the foundation for a society that is based on human dignity rather than fear, divisiveness and separation.