You’ve heard the argument that “no one is illegal” by now, right? Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel spoke these words after fleeing a country that outlawed certain groups of people, including him. For many, these words still ring true: no human being should ever be ‘outlawed’.
However, most of the media narratives about people without an official residency status still use such language: “illegal immigrants,” “illegal aliens,” or even just “illegals.” “Unauthorized” is occasionally used, but that isn’t really any better.
The preferred term is undocumented. And when I say preferred, I’m talking about what the people in question call themselves. Nobody without residency documents in the country they reside in voluntarily calls themself “illegal.”
“Illegal” is a slur. It is a word in the same class as all the other hateful words that are used to slander people as a group. It presupposes criminality in a person solely because of documents they don’t possess – something that is not in their power to change. The use of “illegal” to refer to people is bigotry, plain and simple.
Those who say that people without official residency status are in violation of the law and thus “illegal” act as though all laws matter equally and like they’ve never broken any laws themselves. Have you never gotten a parking ticket? Driven faster than the speed limit? Went somehwere you weren’t supposed to go? Have you always followed every ordinance to the letter? I’m pretty sure the answer is no. As of May 2017, marijuana use is still a federal crime in the United States. Is every American who uses marijuana illegal?
Let’s rethink this legal supremacy logic.
Recent human history has seen laws that automatically criminalize black bodies, Jewish bodies, Roma bodies, Japanese-Americans, LGBTQ people, indigenous languages, members of minority religions, and so much more. Laws are poor guides by themselves for doing what is just and right. They are not an excuse for bigotry.
There are many varying opinions on this issue, and people need to be free to think and say what they will. But the last thing most of us want to do is use prejudicial words that uniformly slander a whole group of people – and especially, a group of people who are vulnerable, whose life stability is constantly under possible threat. This is why we must stop casually using this “illegal” slur against undocumented immigrants – immediately – and insist on respectful language in our conversations on this issue.