By Monika Batra Kashyap
On one end of the “immigrant nomenclature debate” are those, such as the New York Times and the Associated Press, who insist on using the term “illegal immigrant.” On the other end are those, such as many immigrant rights groups, who eschew the term “illegal immigrant” in favor of descriptors like “undocumented.” While I firmly reject wholesale the term “illegal immigrant” based on legal, moral, and historical grounds, I am also dissatisfied with the term “undocumented.” Thus, I believe we are left in need of a new term.
It is critical to view the words we use through a lens grounded in historical context – for doing so can promote a powerful shift in the discourse about immigrants in the U.S.
Indeed, recognizing that this land was colonized by European immigrants; that slavery was in fact forced immigration from Africa that this nation depended upon for its success for three centuries; that many immigrants were made “immigrants” through conquest and/or targeted recruitment by the U.S.; that immigrants play a critical role in the agricultural, industrial and economic growth of this country – reveals the hypocrisy, historical amnesia and racism that undergird the term “illegal immigrant” and makes apparent the negating attributes of terms like “undocumented.”
Terms like “undocumented,” “unauthorized,” “non-citizens,” “without status,” and “unlawfully present” are framed solely in the negative, and thereby reduce a person to a deficiency. Such negating terms are dehumanizing; they connote finality, defeat, shame, and blame.
Therefore, I propose the use of the descriptor: person seeking status. This descriptor connotes fluidity, agency, engagement, and hope. However, if the discourse is not ready for a new term, then terms like “undocumented” should be deemed better than terms like “illegal immigrant.” Regardless, let us continue to interrogate the words we use – however imperfect the words may be.
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