The Supreme Court ruling on SB 1070 written by Justice Anthony Kennedy last month never used the terms “illegal immigrants” and “illegal aliens,” except in cases when quoting other sources. Charles Garcia, a businessman who has served in the administrations of four presidents has written an opinion piece for CNN that explains why the court’s decision to Drop the I-Word “established a humanistic approach to our current restructuring of immigration policy”
When you label someone an “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant” or just plain “illegal,” you are effectively saying the individual, as opposed to the actions the person has taken, is unlawful. The terms imply the very existence of an unauthorized migrant in America is criminal.
In this country, there is still a presumption of innocence that requires a jury to convict someone of a crime. If you don’t pay your taxes, are you an illegal? What if you get a speeding ticket? A murder conviction? No. You’re still not an illegal. Even alleged terrorists and child molesters aren’t labeled illegals.
By becoming judge, jury and executioner, you dehumanize the individual and generate animosity toward them. New York Times editorial writer Lawrence Downes says “illegal” is often “a code word for racial and ethnic hatred.”
Mónica Novoa, campaign coordinator for the Drop the I-Word campaign, a public education campaign working to eradicate the term “illegals” from everyday use and public discourse, supports Garcia’s statement and issued the following statement.
“Illegal alien” appears in the Arizona v. United States (SB 1070) court syllabus and in the dissenting opinion by Justice Scalia. But in the final court decision by Justice Kennedy, he only uses the term from quoted material and uses other descriptions like “unauthorized alien” “undocumented alien” and “unauthorized worker.” While archaic and clearly dehumanizing “alien” language is deeply embedded in our country’s immigration code and the SCOTUS narrative about immigration, the move away from using the i-word in the court’s opinion is a significant change because Judge Kennedy is choosing not to conflate criminality with undocumented status.
We’ve explained before why practicing attorneys do not use the i-word. This is the most recent and prominent SCOTUS opinion not to include the i-word. Recent opinions by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Sotomayor have not used it either. This is tremendous for our efforts to get the media to Drop the I-Word. Now that SCOTUS opinions are not using the i-word and making it clear that being undocumented is not equal to criminality, journalists will have a harder time claiming that the i-word is neutral or precise.
The Drop the I-Word campaign is a project of the Applied Research Center and Colorlines.com.