Let’s Drop the I-Word—Again

By Rinku Sen Nov 06, 2015

Language matters. It has the power to unite or divide. When we use language to dehumanize people, the consequences are drastic—they can even be deadly. In the case of using the word “illegal” to describe immigrants, the 2008 story of Marcelo Lucero, a young Ecuadoran man who was killed on the streets of Long Island in 2008 by attackers shouting that word at him immediately comes to my mind. 

I am also reminded of an incident that occurred during the promotion of “The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization,” a book I wrote about the story of Fekkak Mamdouh, an immigrant worker and organizer after 9/11 that highlighted the need for more humane, racially equitable immigration policy. 

Filled with fear and uncertainty, a young man came up to me and asked for advice. He had come to the U.S. without papers as a toddler with his parents. He had graduated from high school, yet now could not further his education or get a job. He was artistic and mathematical; he represented untapped brilliance. “I’m illegal,” he whispered to me, asking if he should turn himself in and beg for relief. This single word led to death in one situation and paralyzing fear in another. The i-word needed to be dropped.

When we started the Drop the I-Word campaign at Race Forward in 2010, many opposed our strategy and position. Conservatives accused us of misrepresenting facts in order to advance a “politically correct” liberal agenda, and some immigration advocates said language didn’t matter, but policy was the really important thing. Many in the media ignored our efforts at the beginning.

Despite all that, we carried on, with great partners like Presente.org, the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Define American who contributed their own research and campaigning to the cause.

Between 1980 and 2013, among all U.S. News sources, the word “illegal” within immigration-focused articles was used an astonishing 55 percent of the time. Given the opposition we received early on, one can understand why we felt vindicated in 2013 when the Associated Press finally took the phrase “illegal immigrant” out of its Stylebook, affecting millions of readers around the world.

That victory had a domino effect, with the Gannett newspapers, the Los Angeles Times and many others adopting the same policy. However, news sources have stagnated in their efforts to drop the i-word since the campaign. Our data shows that in 2015, the same sources are still using the i-word 28 percent of the time. A success, for sure, yet hardly a permanent victory.

During the month of July 2015 alone, the usage of the i-word among the top 10 outlets spiked to 41.5 percent—over 10 percent more than average among immigration-focused articles. Donald Trump and others have made the phrase, widely understood to be a racial slur two years ago, acceptable again. On the media front, The Washington Post still uses it, as does The New York Times and other influential news outlets.

Our reasons for starting the campaign stand: The i-word is never used to evoke images of white immigrants; its widespread use coincides with rising hate crimes, particularly against Latinos; and it is inaccurate by legal and journalistic standards. All of those things are still true. Only a few months ago, a homeless Hispanic man was viciously assaulted by Trump’s political supporters. The attackers stated Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric was the motivation for their crime.

Because the slur and the violence remain, our humanity requires us to renew our efforts to eliminate usage of this word. We are asking for your new or renewed commitment to Drop the I-Word. You can find new resources at DropTheIWord.com, including a great video in English and Spanish, and a pledge.

This election season will be hard on immigrants, and we will be creating scorecards that you can use to track when politicians and media use the i-word and remind them to do better. We encourage you to use them throughout the coming year, for elections at all levels. Please join us in continuing to move forward and in reminding politicians, media, friends, bloggers—everyone, that no human being is illegal.