There Is No Such Thing As An ‘Illegal Alien’

Originally posted on Huffington Post

Yes, you read it correctly. There really is no such thing.

And not because the Associated Press announced a long overdue change to its Stylebook yesterday and will no longer use “illegal alien”, “illegal” or “illegals” to describe noncitizens unlawfully present in the U.S.

It’s because no human being should ever be described as “illegal.”

Period.

These insensitive terms are also legally incorrect. They erroneously imply that a noncitizen unlawfully in the U.S. is, by virtue of his or her very presence, committing a criminal offense, rather than a civil immigration violation. Is it surprising then that many Americans buy the false restrictionist line that all unlawfully present foreign nationals are criminals? In fact, there is only a discrete group of non-citizens whose very presence in the U.S. is a crime, including those who illegally reentered the country after deportation.

But the argument against the use of these words to describe people is not merely technical. Words really matter in the age of Twitter where 140 character tweets can fly around the world in nanoseconds. Reference to a human being as “illegal” overly simplifies and unfairly characterizes the complexities of the national immigration reform debate. The dysfunctional immigration law which plagues American families and business is a convoluted web of nonsensical rules and regulations that can easily trap any foreign national into an unfixable civil immigration violation.

After years and years of video loops running on the cable television networks, for many Americans the term “illegal alien” conjures up images of people illegally jumping over the Southern border. Most people would be surprised to learn that nearly half the undocumented population entered the U.S. legally. Some came as visitors, others as students, and others as temporary workers. Some fell out of status because they took ill and were forced to drop out of school, others because they fell victim to domestic violence or other crimes, and others because their sponsoring employer mistreated them. Even those foreign nationals that entered the country surreptitiously in direct violation of the immigration law are not “illegal”. Some, like victims of human trafficking, are eligible for protection, not prosecution, under our immigration law.

Over the past two decades the restrictionists — those who seek to cut off virtually all immigration and hang a “Closed for Business” sign around the neck of the Statue of Liberty — have cynically promoted terms like “illegal alien”, “illegal” and “illegals” to dehumanize noncitizens who are in the U.S. with or without lawful immigration status. The effort is designed to scare the American public and appeal to peoples’ darkest, most base instincts.

And for many years it was an effective, albeit nefarious, strategy. In 2007, the last time Congress considered immigration reform legislation, a small cadre of nativist groups virtually overloaded the telephone lines to the U.S. Capitol with bitter attacks on “amnesty for illegals”.

Thankfully, with the increasing political clout of Latino voters — as demonstrated by the last election — politicians and the media are taking a hard look at the words they use to talk about immigration. It would be unimaginable today for a presidential candidate — Republican or Democrat — to again run a national campaign using the terms “illegal alien,” “illegal” or “illegals.” These obnoxious words have been revealed for what they are — racially charged slurs which have no place in America’s national immigration conversation or in the media that reports about it.

The Associated Press did the right thing by finally dropping these ugly descriptors from its Stylebook because such words have no place in objective reporting. Hopefully, other major media outlets will follow the AP’s lead.

Follow David Leopold on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DavidLeopold

About David Leopold
Past President American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), In-the-Trenches practicing immigration Attorney, Blogger, Activist, Photographer, Educator, World Traveler. All opinions are my own.

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