October 1, 2023

While “political correctness” certainly is a buzz word in our culture that points to saying ‘this’ instead of ‘that’ and is often mocked, there is power in changing the vocabulary we use when discussing sensitive subjects. The most prominent example of this is the way we as a society refer to undocumented immigrants.

When we use the term “illegals,” or “illegal immigrants” we are using dehumanizing language that is hateful and inaccurate. There is no such thing as an illegal person, because no human is illegal; the fact that they are a living, breathing human being is not illegal — how they enter the country can be. 

In fact, undocumented immigration into the United States is a civil infraction, not a criminal offense. The action of immigrating without legal approval is what is unlawful and seen as a civil infraction by the United States government. This important distinction not only affects the way we look at our country’s many documented and undocumented immigrants, but also our perception of people from other cultures.

Yes, we live in a country where there are laws and a system in place for how to enter the country. Though much-debated, the act of unlawful immigration is a problem that needs to be addressed.

 Comprehensive immigration reform policy is a holistic solution that will eliminate illegal immigration as well as reform the process and hoops  through which migrant-hopefuls have to jump to gain legal status. “Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate” by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang-Yang is a helpful novel from a Christian perspective on the topic.

The term “illegal immigrant” originated within a negative context. “Illegal immigrant” had its first recorded uses in American and British newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s, referring to migrants arriving at Ellis Island and as a British slur toward Jews who were fleeing  the Nazis and entering Palestine without proper documentation.

Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, told undocumented immigrants:

“You, who are so-called illegal aliens, must know that no human being is illegal. That is a contradiction in terms. Human beings can be beautiful or more beautiful, they can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong, but illegal? How can a human being be illegal?”

Immigration is a sensitive topic across the political spectrum, but next time you get fired up for one reason or another, talk about the problem we have with undocumented immigrants, and please never say the dehumanizing word ‘illegals’ again. 

With changing how we refer to undocumented immigrants, we can move forward as a stronger nation.

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