Applying 'illegal' to certain immigrants is both inaccurate and dehumanizing


As a native daughter of Las Vegas, I know that the Review-Journal is the valley's largest newspaper. To quote your own website, "Almost half of Clark County adults read the Sunday Review-Journal."

For this reason, I urge the Review-Journal to adopt the more accurate and respectful term "undocumented immigrant" instead of the terminology recommended by The Associated Press Stylebook, which still clings, despite criticism, to the term "illegal immigrant."

There is growing opposition to the use of "illegal" because it is a loaded term that lumps together a wide range of immigrant statuses, from tourists who overstay their visas to those who crossed the border illegally. The term "illegal" ignores, for example, that living in the United States without proper authorization is a civil, not a criminal, violation.

Our country has a principle of respecting the presumption of innocence as a fundamental right. Yet we allow journalists to carelessly wield the word "illegal," effectively passing sentence on the person before a judge has done so.

Speaking of judges, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor employed the word "undocumented" in her first opinion on the high court. Kevin Johnson, dean of the law school at the University of California, Davis, pointed out that "when we talk about drivers who violate the driving laws, we don't talk about illegal drivers." A jaywalker is not called an "illegal walker."

New York Times columnist Lawrence Downes explains "illegal" modifies the person instead of the crime, and as such is merely "a code word for racial and ethnic hatred." When you label a person an "illegal" without clarifying whether he has committed an administrative violation or felony, you dehumanize that person and generate animosity toward him.

Ultimately, this is a moral choice. Aristotle, who wrote the book on ethics, felt that we might learn a thing or two by observing how the stone masons of Lesbos figured out how to measure the circumference of their round columns. Since a straight-edge hardly measured up, the masons crafted a more flexible ruler made of lead. Thus the necessity to bend the rule according to circumstance emerged.

In this semantic debate, I am asking the Review-Journal to bend the rule because it is the right thing to do. Using "illegal" is legally inaccurate, racially charged and dehumanizing - and that is why I am urging you to drop the "i" word.

Patricia Vázquez is a professor of English at the College of Southern Nevada.

 

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