Why Drop the I-Word? FAQ
Why Drop the I-Word?
Linking immigrants to language like "illegals" (the i-word) is dehumanizing, racist, confuses the immigration debate and it's just not legally accurate. This anti-immigrant strategy has been moved into the media by a web of people and organizations committed to halting and derailing reasoned, informed debate and policy on immigration.
John Tanton, the founding father of America's modern anti-immigration movement, helped spawn a host of organizations like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Center for Immigration Studies and Numbers USA which leverage hate language against immigrants to promote fear and encourage division, they are often quoted by mainstream media outlets.
Back in 2005, political strategist Frank Luntz issued a language memo to Republicans to guide how they framed immigration. "Illegals" is shorthand for "illegal immigrants," the preferred term used to describe undocumented immigrants in his memo. It is no wonder that with clear direction to use "illegal immigrant," the shorthand slur has become just as common among media pundits and political campaigns.
In addition pollsters like Stan Greenberg, Celinda Lake and Guy Molyneaux, engaged by beltway organizations Center for American Progress and America's Voice, recommended that democrats adopt tougher language on immigration to engage more voters and create bipartisanship to achieve immigration reform. At this time political consultant Drew Westen, also recommended that democrats use the i-word to be more effective. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) became one of the biggest cheerleaders for use of the term.
Here are the top 3 reasons to eradicate this hateful term:
Reason #1 It's dehumanizing. The i-word is shorthand for other harmful racially charged terms that dehumanize people. The i-word promotes violence and discrimination. It sends the message that immigrants are sub-human and undeserving.
Reason #2 It's racist. Use of the i-word affects attitudes toward immigrants and non-immigrants alike, most often toward people of African, Asian, and Latin American descent. The discriminatory message is not explicit, but hidden, or racially coded.
Reason #3 It's inaccurate legally and confuses the debate. Immigration judges and attorneys don't use the i-word. Journalists who treat all transgressions as "alleged," - a tenet of ethical and professional journalism, don't use it either. The i-word finds many people guilty before they are tried and ignores the fact that our laws are unjustly applied. Immigrants without documents are regularly hired as cheap, exploited labor with a limited ability to protect their own rights. No one else who benefits from the set up, including the employers who recruit and hire these migrants, is labeled this way.
The i-word is used to unfairly label and scapegoat people who are out of status due to a variety of systemic circumstances. For example, many people:
- Are brought to the country against their will or by employers who often exploit them for cheap labor.
- Fall out of status and overstay their VISAS because of school or employment.
- Risk being killed in their country of origin due to political or religious beliefs or sexual orientation.
- Are affected by natural disasters and/or other reasons beyond their control.
- Are forced by economics and harmful policies like NAFTA to leave their country to simply provide for their families.
- Are on a backlog waiting years to get processed, even when they are eligible to get papers through a relative. Reason.org illustrates this well with a chart of "Our Nation's Broken Immigration and Naturalization System."
Frequently Asked Questions
- What is the appropriate term to use in place of the i-word?
The Colorlines.com style guide in this toolkit includes terms that journalists and others can use to accurately describe a person's situation (e.g. undocumented immigrant, unauthorized immigrant, and immigrant without papers) without being dehumanizing or compromising professional journalistic standards.
The Drop the I-Word campaign's focus is on eradicating the dehumanizing i-word (illegals) from common usage and public discourse. We are not focused on settling on a new term because a single phrase will not be adequate to describe the status of all people caught up in the broken immigration system.
- Is dropping the i-word about being politically correct?
Dropping the i-word is about protecting humanity and dignity. Accusations of political correctness divert the public from a serious conversation about race and the responsibility that media has in reporting the news in a complete and responsible way.
Political parties, interest groups and even some media outlets use anti-immigrant talking points and catch phrases to influence the American public. Language matters - especially if it comes down to labeling human beings and determining their future. It's time we reject all hateful racist language.
- Does dropping the i-word ignore rule of law?
The U.S. is a country of laws, but if the laws are causing inhumane treatment of people, racial profiling and lack of human rights protections, we need to look at how to fix our laws so that they also match our values. Currently, corporations and products have more rights to move across nations than some immigrants do. While businesses freely cross borders, they are not marginalized, penalized or criminalized the same way immigrants have been. There should not be a double standard about our laws, about who gets to break them, and who gets treated humanely.
The case for journalists to Drop the I-Word
Journalists strive for professional and responsible language out of respect for their craft and the people they report about.
Using the i-word, "illegal" to describe immigrants is incompatible with journalistic standards. The normalization of the i-word undermines efforts of journalists to explain the complexities of migration and its ties to labor, economy and foreign policy issues.
The three major arguments against using the i-word are that the descriptor is
- legally inaccurate and misleading
- politically loaded and anti-immigrant and
- experienced as racially biased and dehumanizing by the people it is used to describe
There are accurate terms available to explain a person's migratory status or experience, such as "unauthorized," "aspiring citizen" "entered without inspection," etc. [*] The United Nation's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) uses "undocumented migrants," "unauthorized migrants" or "irregular migrants."
Journalists and editors are dropping the i-word:
- The 7,800-member Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) passed a resolution in 2011 to discontinue use of the term "illegal alien" based on the idea that describing someone as "illegal" is unconstitutional. They recommended that members re-evaluate the implications of the use of "illegal immigrant."
- Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas published his moving essay, "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant" in The New York Times Sunday Magazine in 2011, modeling respectful language for millions and making "undocumented" a trending topic on Twitter. He founded Define American to promote respectful public discourse on immigration and a year later he appeared with 35 other undocumented young people on the cover of TIME magazine. The cover described them as American.
- The campaign to Drop the I-Word was endorsed by the national UNITY alliance of over 10,000 members comprised of the Asian American Journalists Association, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Native American Journalists Association and most recently, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association.
- The San Antonio-Express News, The Miami Herald, New Haven Register, Middletown Press and Register Citizen no longer use the i-word.
How the i-word undermines professional reporting standards
Describing people as "illegal" denies due process
- Using the i-word is equivalent to referring to defendants awaiting trial as "convicted criminals." The law doesn't define "illegal alien" and "illegal immigrant." 
- The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), the highest administrative body for interpreting and applying immigration laws does not use the i-word.
- Justice Kennedy omitted the terms "illegal immigrants" and "illegal aliens," from the SCOTUS SB 1070 decision, except when quoting other sources.  He said, "foreign nationals residing unlawfully in the U.S. are not and never have been criminals" ... "it was not a crime to seek or engage in unauthorized employment."
- In Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting, Chief Justice Roberts didn't use the i-word he used "unauthorized worker" and "unauthorized alien." 
Immigration status is fluid, it's not as simple as "legal" vs. "illegal"
- Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), there are all kinds of non-citizens, many of whom may temporarily be out of status, but may eventually be able to stay in the U.S. 
- For example, in some instances, victims of labor abuse or of trafficking are eligible for immigration relief and, if that were the case, then that same person might go from authorized, to unauthorized, to authorized again.
The i-word conflates immigrants with criminality
- Using the term "illegal," a person takes a side of the issue by labeling the person whom they are describing as a "criminal." This brings the taint of criminality to a non-criminal process, as immigration cases go through civil proceedings.
The i-word was normalized through anti-immigrant strategy
- The use of the i-word along with misinformation about immigration has been led by anti-immigrant advocacy organizations like Numbers USA, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). They are all tied to eugenicist John Tanton. 
- Frank Luntz, a GOP strategist, promoted use of the term "illegal immigrants" in a 2005 memo explaining that it would encourage an understanding of immigrants as criminals and create politically useful division among voters.
* Colorlines.com's Immigration Stylebook. http://bit.ly/dtiwJtoolkit
- Keith Cunningham-Parmeter. Fordham Law Review. "Alien Language: Immigration Metaphors and the jurisprudence of Otherness." Volume 79, Number 4, March 2011. http://bit.ly/alienlanguage
- Charles Garcia. CNN Opinion. "Why 'illegal immigrant' is a slur." July 6, 2012. http://bit.ly/M7cCMI
- Monica Novoa. Colorlines.com. "The Supreme Court and Dangerous Immigration Metaphors" April 27, 2012 http://bit.ly/SCOTUSmetaphors
- Prerna Lal. New America Media. "It's More Complicated Than 'Legal vs. Illegal': An Open Letter to Ruben Navarrette." July 10, 2012. http://bit.ly/statusisfluid
- Gabriel Thompson. Colorlines.com "How the Right Made Racism Sound Fair--and Changed Immigration Politics." September 13, 2011 http://bit.ly/gopiwordstrategy
- Luntz, Maslansky Strategic Research. "Respect for the Law and Economic Fairness: Illegal Immigration Prevention." October 2005. http://bit.ly/LuntzMemoImmigration
Colorlines.com's Immigration Stylebook
Colorlines.com adheres to professional and ethical journalistic standards when covering immigration. Institutions that are dropping the i-word can also use this guide to cover immigration fairly.
This guide outlines why Colorlines.com writers don't use the i-word, "illegals," in any form to describe people. We use terms that are both accurate and avoid racially and politically charged labels when reporting about immigrants without proper immigration documentation. People residing in the U.S. without a visa can include those who overstay, fall out of status, or enter the country without inspection - there is no one word that can describe all types of situations. Importantly, visa violations are civil rather than criminal infractions and residents charged with them are processed through administrative rather than criminal courts.
We use language that is professional and responsible.
The terms "illegal immigrant" and "illegal alien" are inaccurate by legal and journalistic standards. The shorthand i-word used as a noun, "illegals," is also problematic grammatically and, like the other related terms, is dehumanizing and racially charged. As writers and editors, we know that our words matter deeply and, thus, we choose them carefully. We don't use the term out of respect for our craft and the human dignity of the people we report about.
The i-word is legally inaccurate. 1
"Illegal alien" and "illegal immigrant" are incoherent terms from the standpoint of immigration law. Immigration judges and ICE attorneys don't use the terms because they are meaningless in the context of immigration proceedings. The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), the highest administrative body for interpreting and applying immigration laws, does not use them either.
Use of the i-word denies due process.
Ethical journalism includes respect for due process. It's accepted practice to use the words "accused, "purported," or "alleged" before a case is resolved legally. In covering immigration we respect due process and a person's constitutional rights. The SanAntonioExpressNews 2 and the MiamiHerald 3 have cited this fact as one reason they don't use the i-word.
The i-word is part of a long-term political strategy to criminalize immigrants.
The i-word is not neutral. It is racially charged and has been promoted by restrictionist advocacy organizations like NumbersUSA 4 and the FederationforAmericanImmigrationReform (FAIR), 5 founded by eugenicist John Tanton. 6 Frank Luntz, a Republican Party strategist, recommended operatives promote use of the term "illegal immigrants" in a 2005 memo 7 , explaining that it would encourage an understanding of immigrants as criminals and create politically useful division among voters. With clear direction to use "illegal immigrant," the shorthand slur has become just as common among media pundits and political campaigns.
While the i-word was originally used and championed by restrictionists, it's also now used by Republicans and Democrats alike, as well as by some advocates of comprehensive immigration reform. Pollsters 8 like Stan Greenberg, Celinda Lake and Guy Molyneaux, engaged by liberal advocacy groups, have recommended that Democrats also adopt tougher language on immigration in order to engage more voters on the topic of immigration reform. Political consultant Drew Westen has also recommended that Democrats use the i-word to be more effective. Whatever political strategists on either side of the immigration debate believe, it is not the role of journalists to embrace their talking points. The term remains inaccurate, politically loaded and dehumanizing to the people it describes.
Colorlines.com Stylebook Entry on Immigration
Never use the shorthand "illegals" as a noun. Do not use the terms "alien," "criminal alien," "illegal immigrant," "illegal worker," or related terms except in quoted matter; the terms are pejorative, incorrect and biased. Do not use the slur "anchor baby" to refer to a child of immigrants. Use accurate and nuanced descriptors that are specific to the stories of the people you are writing about. Preferred terms include:
- Undocumented immigrant
- Immigrant without papers
- Immigrants entering without inspection
- Immigrant seeking status
- Unauthorized immigrant
- Citizen child of undocumented immigrants
It is acceptable to use migrant or foreign national; when possible use a specific reference to nationality (e.g.: Briton, Cambodian, Canadian, Jamaican, Mexican, Pakistani).
Colorlines.com disagrees with the Associated Press Stylebook
While the Associated Press Stylebook is often cited as the industry standard, the current entry on how to refer to immigrants without papers does not meet Colorlines.com's standards for professional and ethical reporting. The AP Stylebook created its entry, "illegal immigrant," in 2004, in response to the heightened debate over border security and the enforcement of immigration laws after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "Together the terms describe a person who resides in a country unlawfully by residency or citizenship requirements," AP's deputy standards editor David Minthornsaidinane-mailinterview. 9 "Alternatives like undocumented worker, illegal alien or illegals lack precision or may have negative connotations. Illegal immigrant, on the other hand, is accurate and neutral for news stories." This statement ignores the facts of immigration law and the long political history behind the i-word.
1. Dave Bennion. "'Illegal Immigrant'Is the Real Euphemism." July 02, 2009. http://bit.ly/eJpxNR
Media Pledge and Endorsement
Join Us in Dropping the I-Word!
Drop the I-Word!
"Illegals" is a damaging term that divides and dehumanizes communities and is used to discriminate against immigrants and people of color. The i-word is shorthand for "illegal alien," "illegal immigrant," and other inaccurate and harmful racially charged terms. We can stop unintentionally fueling racial profiling and violence directed toward immigrants when we drop the i-word.
Through this endorsement, our organization pledges to drop the i-word. We urge colleagues and media organizations to uphold ethical and professional legal and journalistic standards by dropping the i-word today. We don't use the i-word slur and related terms out of respect for our craft, truth, and the human dignity of the people we report about.
These terms are:
- Dehumanizing and racially charged.
- Meaningless in the context of immigration court proceedings.
- Not respectful of due process and a person's constitutional rights.
- Promoted by restrictionist advocacy organizations like NumbersUSA and the FederationforAmericanImmigrationReform (FAIR), founded by eugenicist John Tanton.
Foreign nationals, undocumented immigrant, unauthorized immigrant, immigrant entering without inspection and immigrant seeking status are examples of terms we can use that do not dehumanize people.
Your pledge will be sent to various media outlets throughout our campaign. Please also send a high-resolution image of your logo to Mónica Novoa at email@example.com so we can include it on our campaign website.