The Tragic Use of Words to Criminalize Human Beings

Last Friday, the Minnesota Daily ran an article about the Asylum Law Project at the University of Minnesota.  The headline read, “Law Students Help Illegal Immigrants.” While the main thrust of the article was very pro-immigrant and gave voice to numerous groups involved in immigrant advocacy, the inclusion of the term “illegal” somewhat marred its message. After letters of protest from as near as the East and West Bank and as far as California, the Minnesota Daily Editor-in-Chief Vadim Lavrusik published statement explaining the misunderstanding, reiterating the Daily‘s 2006 commitment to use the term “undocumented,” and the editing of the article.

The Associated Press style book currently prefers “illegal immigrant” over “undocumented worker” or “illegal alien.”  While not as bombastic as the latter, “illegal immigrant” still criminalizes people and implies an overgeneralization.  For example, the cases the Asylum Law Project worked on were asylum seekers, who are neither legal nor illegal.  These people declared to the United States government they were seeking asylum from their home country; as a result, they are kept in detention centers until their case is decided.  To dub people like this “illegal” is to hold individuals guilty until proven innocent, a sad digression of American justice.  It is sad that the AP style book still persists in continuing a journalistic tradition that perpetuates such divisive and alienating terminology.

The common use and acceptance of derogatory terms in mass media track the same public discourse that laid the ground for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  Called “Coolies” and “Asiatics” for years, accused of depressing wages and bringing subversive politics, decried as failing to integrate and having “anchor babies,” Chinese-Americans were discriminated against for decades preceding this first racially-based immigration legislation.  Chinese immigrants were effectively barred from citizenship until the act was repealed in 1943 with the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act.   As has been the case historically, the ways Chinese immigrants were framed in the media affected the way they were viewed nationally.  Associated Press should be pressured to change their practice of using “illegal immigrant” in articles throughout the United States.  Please write a letter or email to the editors, telling them that no human being is illegal and that we are capable of more civil and exact nomenclature for migrants.

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2 Responses to “The Tragic Use of Words to Criminalize Human Beings”

  1. uk visa Says:

    I agree completely – tried clicking on the ‘editors’ link but link doesn’t appear to work – info@ap.org
    I wonder how many emails it will take to sway them into changing the style book…

  2. Matthew Webster Says:

    Thanks for writing them….the only way to find out how many emails it will take is to start sending them.

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