Skip to main content

Why 'illegal immigrant' is a slur

By Charles Garcia, Special to CNN
July 6, 2012 -- Updated 1614 GMT (0014 HKT)
A supporter of Arizona's immigration policy pickets outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington in April.
A supporter of Arizona's immigration policy pickets outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington in April.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Charles Garcia: Supreme Court majority was wise to avoid term "illegal immigrant"
  • The term suggests that individuals, rather than actions, are unlawful, he says
  • He says foreign nationals residing unlawfully in the U.S. are not criminals
  • Repetition of phrases like "illegal immigrant" is like a poison that infects society, Garcia says

Editor's note: Charles Garcia, who has served in the administrations of four presidents, of both parties, is the CEO of Garcia Trujillo, a business focused on the Hispanic market. He was named in the book "Hispanics in the USA: Making History" as one of 14 Hispanic role models for the nation. Follow him on Twitter: @charlespgarcia. Lea este artículo en español/Read this article in Spanish

(CNN) -- Last month's Supreme Court decision in the landmark Arizona immigration case was groundbreaking for what it omitted: the words "illegal immigrants" and "illegal aliens," except when quoting other sources. The court's nonjudgmental language established a humanistic approach to our current restructuring of immigration policy.

When you label someone an "illegal alien" or "illegal immigrant" or just plain "illegal," you are effectively saying the individual, as opposed to the actions the person has taken, is unlawful. The terms imply the very existence of an unauthorized migrant in America is criminal.

In this country, there is still a presumption of innocence that requires a jury to convict someone of a crime. If you don't pay your taxes, are you an illegal? What if you get a speeding ticket? A murder conviction? No. You're still not an illegal. Even alleged terrorists and child molesters aren't labeled illegals.

By becoming judge, jury and executioner, you dehumanize the individual and generate animosity toward them. New York Times editorial writer Lawrence Downes says "illegal" is often "a code word for racial and ethnic hatred."

Charles Garcia
Charles Garcia

The term "illegal immigrant" was first used in 1939 as a slur by the British toward Jews who were fleeing the Nazis and entering Palestine without authorization. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel aptly said that "no human being is illegal."

Navarrette: "Illegal immigrant" is the uncomfortable truth

Migrant workers residing unlawfully in the U.S. are not -- and never have been -- criminals. They are subject to deportation, through a civil administrative procedure that differs from criminal prosecution, and where judges have wide discretion to allow certain foreign nationals to remain here.

News: For immigrants and opponents, court's ruling hits their real lives

Immigration ruling leaves questions
Ariz. Gov. Brewer: This is not the end
Toobin: Guidance from court not clear

Another misconception is that the vast majority of migrant workers currently out of status sneak across our southern border in the middle of the night. Actually, almost half enter the U.S. with a valid tourist or work visa and overstay their allotted time. Many go to school, find a job, get married and start a family. And some even join the Marine Corps, like Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, who was the first combat veteran to die in the Iraq War. While he was granted American citizenship posthumously, there are another 38,000 non-citizens in uniform, including undocumented immigrants, defending our country.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and three other justices, stated: "As a general rule, it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain present in the United States." The court also ruled that it was not a crime to seek or engage in unauthorized employment.

As Kennedy explained, removal of an unauthorized migrant is a civil matter where even if the person is out of status, federal officials have wide discretion to determine whether deportation makes sense. For example, if an unauthorized person is trying to support his family by working or has "children born in the United States, long ties to the community, or a record of distinguished military service," officials may let him stay. Also, if individuals or their families might be politically persecuted or harmed upon return to their country of origin, they may also remain in the United States.

While the Supreme Court has chosen language less likely to promote hatred and divisiveness, journalists continue using racially offensive language.

University of Memphis journalism professor Thomas Hrach conducted a study of 122,000 news stories published between 2000 and 2010, to determine which terms are being used to describe foreign nationals in the U.S. who are out of status. He found that 89% of the time during this period, journalists used the biased terms "illegal immigrant" and "illegal alien."

Hrach discovered that there was a substantial increase in the use of the term "illegal immigrant," which he correlated back to the Associated Press Stylebook's decision in 2004 to recommend "illegal immigrant" to its members. (It's the preferred term at CNN and The New York Times as well.) The AP Stylebook is the decisive authority on word use at virtually all mainstream daily newspapers, and it's used by editors at television, radio and electronic news media. According to the AP, this term is "accurate and neutral."

For the AP to claim that "illegal immigrant" is "accurate and neutral" is like Moody's giving Bernie Madoff's hedge fund a triple-A rating for safety and creditworthiness.

It's almost as if the AP were following the script of pollster and Fox News contributor Frank Luntz, considered the foremost GOP expert on crafting the perfect conservative political message. In 2005, he produced a 25-page secret memorandum that would radically alter the immigration debate to distort public perception of the issue.

The secret memorandum almost perfectly captures Mitt Romney's position on immigration -- along with that of every anti-immigrant politician and conservative pundit. For maximum impact, Luntz urges Republicans to offer fearful rhetoric: "This is about overcrowding of YOUR schools, emergency room chaos in YOUR hospitals, the increase in YOUR taxes, and the crime in YOUR communities." He also encourages them to talk about "border security," because after 9/11, this "argument does well among all voters -- even hardcore Democrats," as it conjures up the specter of terrorism.

George Orwell's classic "Nineteen Eighty-Four" shows how even a free society is susceptible to manipulation by overdosing on worn-out prefabricated phrases that convert people into lifeless dummies, who become easy prey for the political class.

News: For immigrant graduates, a 'leap of faith has been answered,' educator says

In "Nineteen Eighty-Four," Orwell creates a character named Syme who I find eerily similar to Luntz. Syme is a fast-talking word genius in the research department of the Ministry of Truth. He invents doublespeak for Big Brother and edits the Newspeak Dictionary by destroying words that might lead to "thoughtcrimes." Section B contains the doublespeak words with political implications that will spread in speakers' minds like a poison.

In Luntz's book "Words That Work," Appendix B lists "The 21 Political Words and Phrases You Should Never Say Again." For example, destroy "undocumented worker" and instead say "illegal immigrant," because "the label" you use "determines the attitudes people have toward them."

And the poison is effective. Surely it's no coincidence that in 2010, hate crimes against Latinos made up 66% of the violence based on ethnicity, up from 45% in 2009, according to the FBI.

In his essay "Politics and the English Language," Orwell warned that one must be constantly on guard against a ready-made phrase that "anaesthetizes a portion of one's brain." But Orwell also wrote that "from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase ... into the dustbin, where it belongs" -- just like the U.S. Supreme Court did.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Charles Garcia.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2106 GMT (0506 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2317 GMT (0717 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2041 GMT (0441 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT