Thursday, December 17, 2009

"Illegal" word problem

Criticism not applied to Americans, and not specific

The importance of a name

Whether the word "illegal" is an appropriate way to describe someone with an immigration problem is the subject of debate again.

On Tuesday, USA Today prominently used the term "illegal students" in an otherwise informative article about students trapped in their immigration status, and organized a petition in protest. I think it's important to sign the petition, even though I would quibble with its wording.

The use of "illegal" as an adjective or a noun has bothered me for a while. In October, 2006, a reader-inspired fake ad campaign (sample above) pointed out the ethical problem of how Americans break the law but never call ourselves "illegal." One of my January 2007 posts called out the Tennessean when it used the word "illegal" as a noun in a headline, a practice which the National Association of Hispanic Journalists said they are "particularly troubled" by. In October of this year, Kleinheider noticed my use of the term "visaless" in one of my stories about the Baby Yair case, in which the State wouldn't turn over a rescued baby to family members on the grounds of their immigration status.

Name-calling is easy when the name can't apply to you

When a label is a criticism, it's ethically important for the label to be one that could apply to the person making the criticism.

We all know we don't use "illegal" in the same way when we describe Americans with other legal problems. I remember seeing "illegal" used as a noun in an ABC News headline recently, so on a lark I just searched Google News for all ABC News stories using the word "illegal" in a headline. I went through ten pages of results, and there wasn't a single reference to an American lawbreaker. There were a few references to illegal conduct by Americans outside the context of immigration, but no use of the word "illegal" to describe the American person or people in the story.

A Google search revealed some reference to "visaless" in reference to Americans traveling abroad without permission, so that gives the label greater credibility as one that could be used in reference to foreign citizens who are traveling or living abroad (here) without permission.

The words "internationals" or "expatriates" are other words that are more often used to describe Americans abroad that could be adopted into our vocabulary of describing foreign citizens here.

Be specific

In describing the status of someone with immigration problems, "visaless" and/or "unvisaed" are also more specific than "illegal" or even "undocumented" or "unauthorized," because it's the lack of a visa that more specifically describes people without immigration status. Most visaless people usually are in possession of whatever documents the government allows them to have - you've never seen a visaless immigrant driving without a license plate, have you? And until the change in TN law, unvisaed immigrants had drivers' licenses, which made the concept of a driver who is legally licensed but still referred to as "undocumented" even more clearly nonsensical.

If you search the web for "unvisaed" you don't see the term used much here in the U.S., except by me in the pages of - but it's a commonly used term in Australia. As mentioned above, "visaless" is an even more common term. Both are reasonable alternatives.

And just to be clear on two points: First, figuring out what word to use is not the same thing as figuring out or making a statement on what immigration law is or how people should act in regard to immigration law. Second, I use and have used a variety of terms to describe problematic immigration status (including the less favored ones described here), so my point in this post is not to force or prohibit the use of one term or another, but to encourage the use of the best possible terms.

"I have called you by your name"

Along those lines of encouraging the use of the best possible terms, and all this having been said, it's worth remembering that the best label for someone is their name.

Some people like to joke that those of us who resist the term "illegal" would call a thief in our homes an "undocumented explorer" or something like that. In response to that kind of joke, and putting aside for a moment the fact that they wouldn't use the term "illegal thief" either, my thought is that if someone is living and working in your house and getting paid for that work for a number of years, it's you who is out of place if you're calling them anything other than their name.

The importance of a name was eloquently invoked by Phil Bennett of Belmont Church in his recent post, "His name is James." I encourage you to read Phil's full post here. In the comments, Becky Nickins drove the point home for Christians:
"I have called you by your name; you are Mine”
Is. 43:1

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