Turning right on red in New York City is illegal. Immigrants are not.
What’s the difference? Well one of these things is an act and the other one is a person, and pretty much every standard definition of the word “illegal” clearly applies to acts and not people. You wouldn’t describe a human being as “contrary to or forbidden by law” because we don’t have laws that forbid human beings’ existence.
What we do have is a dominant culture that is invested in denying immigrants their full humanity in order to continue to oppress and exploit them, and a paper of record whose “Public Editor” is happy to play along.
Margaret Sullivan couches her argument against dropping the phrase “illegal immigrant” in concern for the interests of the readers of the New York Times — she is, after all, the “readers’ representative.” In doing so, she reveals a disturbingly classist perspective on who those readers are:
I see no advantage for Times readers in a move away from the paper’s use of the phrase “illegal immigrant.”… This is not a judgment on immigration policy or on the various positions surrounding immigration reform, or those who hold those positions. Nor is it meant to be uncaring about the people to whom the words apply.
It’s simply a judgment about clarity and accuracy, which readers hold so dear.
Sullivan clearly discounts the possibility that there is any overlap between Times readers and “the people to whom the words apply.” Perhaps this is a failure of imagination. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the fact that when you use dehumanizing language about a group of people, it’s harder to imaging them doing human things like, say, reading a national newspaper.
Sullivan also tries to cover herself by claiming that her decision is not “a judgement on immigration policy or on the various positions surrounding immigration reform.”
Language is political. Naming is a political act.
The phrase “illegal immigrant” has been used as one tool among many to suppress the rights and humanity of immigrants, to enable the economic exploitation of undocumented workers, and to destroy solidarity between working-class US citizens and non-citizens.
Don’t get it twisted, NYT. You’re not being neutral here. If you don’t drop the I-word, you’re on the wrong side.