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Extraterrestrials

What do you feel when you hear the phrase “colored people”? It is not the choice term to describe African Americans today, but it used to be. Is it implausible that there are words in our language today that won’t be acceptable in the future? Sometimes the terms go unnoticed and sometimes they don’t even seem offensive. “Illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant” are terms just like that. They are so commonly used that many people don’t even think of them as offensive. The use of “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant” all throughout the media has made them acceptable in dialogue; however, this does not mean that the terms aren’t offensive or belittling to Latinos. History has shown that expressions or words that could be deemed offensive are typically removed from common usage, especially within the media. “Colored people” was the socially correct way to refer to African Americans before the Civil Rights Movement, but the phrase was later recognized as offensive and replaced with less belligerent terms. Latinos are routinely referred to as “illegals” and “aliens” and not only is that offensive but most of them are not “illegals” and none of them are “aliens.” It is troubling to think that in our country that is so sensitive to social rights these degrading words are still the norm. Part of the issue of determining the correct term for an undocumented immigrant is how we define “illegal” and “alien.”
The problem with describing undocumented workers as illegal is that they are not necessarily guilty of any crime. Leo E. Laurence, editor of the San Diego News Service and member of the Society of Professional Journalists Diversity Committee, brings up this point in his article on the subject. Laurence notes, “One of the most basic of our constitutional rights is that everyone (including non-citizens) is innocent of any crime until proven guilty in a court of law.” He later writes, “Simply put, only a judge, not a journalist, can say that someone is illegal.” Laurence makes a tremendously stable and solid point as it is based in our own Constitution. Most people can see how automatically declaring a person “illegal” is unfair or at least unconstitutional. The media is at the root of the problem as it influences much of our dialogue through its choice of words. Blame doesn’t fall entirely on the aforementioned journalists however, as the Associated Press Stylebook, which is followed religiously by many journalists, lists “illegal immigrant” as preferred over “undocumented immigrant.”
Aside from this Constitutional definition, there is a connotation that comes along with anything deemed illegal. I know when I hear that something is illegal I make an effort to avoid it. Whether it is drugs or alcohol or anything really, I will see it in a negative way simply because it is described as such. Furthermore, I will stray away from anyone who associates with those items, persons, or activities. Now imagine that instead of drugs people will now avoid Latinos and anyone who associates with them simply because the term illegal has been so commonly used to describe them. Is it fair for these people to face such prejudice because we are ignorant of the effects our words have?
One could argue that it is impractical to use another term, as does William Buchanan in his Washington Times article “Clearly Illegal.” He describes a court case in which it is ruled that “illegal aliens” is less ambiguous than “undocumented immigrants” and is easier to use than “alien[s] who [are] not lawfully present” (Buchanan). However, Buchanan later admits that the California Court of Appeals is “in the business of defining legal terms.” So while “illegal alien” might be the most practical legal term, we can use a less offensive term in the media and in our everyday dialogue.
It is also unfair to refer to the immigrants as “aliens.” In law, “alien” simply refers to a person inside a country who is not a citizen of that country. The argument can again be made that “illegal alien” is the most practical term for use in court; however, it should not be used outside of the court. The connotation of “alien” does not fit what it is used to describe. When I hear “alien” I picture extraterrestrials and outer space. These things are far different from the human beings that are wrongly associated with them. I don’t think of an “alien” as human. I think of another species vastly unlike and my fellow Americans, so calling undocumented workers “aliens” dehumanizes them even though they are humans just like us. They were simply born a few hundred miles south. In Buchanan’s article, the defendants of the case state that they prefer “undocumented immigrant” to “illegal alien.” It is easy to see why these Latinos are offended by the term “illegal alien,” yet it is still widely used in conversation and in the media.
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists recommends using “undocumented immigrants” or “undocumented workers” (Laurence). I believe that “undocumented immigrant” is the term that should be used today. This term describes the people accurately and doesn’t offend Latinos. Instead of describing someone incorrectly as illegal, we should label them appropriately. Undocumented immigrants are just what the correct term suggests. They are immigrants from outside the country that do not have the necessary documents or paperwork to be in the United States. It is still a simple, easy to use, and understandable phrase that gets the point across, but is far less offensive than previous terms used.
I think I have made clear the reasons why “illegal alien” is an unacceptable phrase. I believe that “undocumented immigrant” is a valid and appropriate alternative. It is hard to argue against this new substitute, and I don’t see any reason it shouldn’t be set in place now; however, replacing a part of our language takes time, but it all begins with changing the media. Perhaps, the first place to start is the Associated Press Stylebook, which is a journalist’s best friend. The AP Stylebook stills lists “illegal immigrant” as preferred over “undocumented worker.” Changing the preferred term in this single would be a big step towards stopping its use.





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