Thoughts On the Decline and Fall of That Most Ignoble of Terms, 'Illegal Immigrant'

April 5, 2013

Tuesday’s stunning announcement by the Associated Press that it was dropping the racist term “Illegal immigrant” from its AP Stylebook,
the Bible of journalistic usage, marks a historic juncture. The history
of the decline and fall of the term “illegal immigrant” and its
derivatives (“Illegals”, “illegal alien” and the like) is one that
should be recounted, IMHO.

Firstly, it’s important to understand the long how and the deep what
of this collective accomplishment, this latest victory, because
victories, including linguistic victories, are one of the defining
characteristics of major social movements. One need look no further
than the social and linguistic change engendered by the movements
of black power (“N” word, African American), women (“B” word &
others), queer communities (“F’ word & others), disabled people (“C”
word) and many others. Many, many did indeed work on this and we should
all celebrate. In the words of Ivan Roman, former President of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists,
which led the fight in the quiet of editorial rooms throughout the
country since the late '90s, “Thanks to lots of work by a lot of people
and more intense work more recently by a certain cluster of folks, it’s
finally happened! Kudos!”

Journalists and the poc journalism orgs led and were the most consistent in this fight for many years, and that needs to be underscored bcause it is less-known. 

Within that most recent “cluster” Ivan mentions, I identify and salute Jose Antonio Vargas & Define American, Oscar Chacon & NALACC, DREAMers,,
artists, linguists and lots of local, regional and national groups who
mounted different initiatives with different outlets in different cities
at different times in the past 3.5 years that defined that cluster
moment. Of special note are Rinku Sen and the Applied Research Center (ARC) and their Drop the I Word campaign for
the money, for the full and part-time staffing and for the consistency
that, since 2010, carried the campaign to national scale and attention,
far and beyond the polite (and sometimes impolite!) conversation of the
editorial room.

[View Drop the I-word video here.]

And I know of no single person who spent more time thinking about, who
worked more hours (slept fewer hours!) with more groups in more cities
and with more media outlets to drop the I-Word than Monica Novoa, ARC’s former Drop the I-Word Coordinator, and current Define American team member.

These facts I want not to be lost in the thrill and buzz of victory.

In terms of the deep what of what was accomplished, we should recall that the roots of the Associated Press’ decision -- and the campaign that brought that decision --  lie in the history and confluence of the Jewish and the Salvadoran experiences of violence, and the dehumanization that enables it.

Unbeknownst to most is that the language activism of  Drop the I-Word and the immigrant rights movement that informed it were themselves a continuation of the work begun -- en Español -- by Salvadorans organizing the “Nigún Ser Humano Es Ilegal” campaign in the 1980′s. In support of the right of Salvadorans in the 1980s to legal status in the U.S. under international political asylum statutes, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Elie Wiesel gave the Salvadoran sanctuary movement the now storied phrase, “No Human Being is Illegal.” “Yes, I gave that term to the Sanctuary movement, Wiesel told me some years ago. “It was wrong to deny them (Salvadorans and Guatemalans) (legal) status. I was happy to support the cause.” And there,  in the marriage of Jewish and Salvadoran dignities, was born the beginning of the end of the ignoble term “illegal immigrant.”

Speaking with Wiesel and with Salvadorans, Guatemalans and other victims of extreme violence, one thing about language becomes tragically obvious: violent, oppressive language is a necessary precursor to both violent, oppressive policy and violent, oppressive physical and psychological action; What also becomes clear is that eliminating such language does, in fact, make bad policy and violent behavior that much more difficult and avoidable. This alone is reason to celebrate.

Let us now add this ignoble term to the dustbin of dead and offensive language that includes “nigger”, “faggot”, “cripple”, “chink”, “jap”, “bitch” and too many others in a country born of a noxious blend of Biblical language and the language of exploitation and officially-sanctioned violence.

Let us rejoice that, over time, our children will learn you don’t refer to human beings as “illegals”, “illegal immigrants” and other dehumanizing (to referent and to speaker) terms.

Over time, we will all proudly remember that we held our own faith and were resolute in delivering the Word: Ningún Ser Humano Es Illegal.


Roberto Lovato is a writer and commentator at New America Media, a strategy consultant and a Co-Founder of You can find him posting regularly on media, migration, cilmate change, social movements, national security, politics and other issues at his blog,

Originally published at Of América.




You can twist the language but you can not hide from the act, skirting the law instead of following the legal process.