Why I Don’t Call People “Illegal”

It was such a joy this week to see that the Associated Press has decided to address the loaded use of the word “illegal."

I resonate deeply with the quote from Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll: “The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term “illegal immigrant” or the use of “illegal” to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that “illegal” should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally…”

It was such a jolt when we moved from Los Angeles to Atlanta and every news broadcast regarding immigration was playing it fast and loose with the word. They especially loved referring to undocumented immigrants as “the illegals,” which was particularly distasteful (and interestingly, is being underlined in my document as “not a real word”).

I love words (shocker, I know!), and I do believe that the language we use has power and meaning. That’s why I try to be conscious of how I use words. It’s not about being “politically correct,” it’s about respecting others as much as possible.

For me, this doesn’t relate only to immigrants. I’ve tried to eliminate other words in my vocabulary, such as criminal and prostitute. I do not want to define people by their mix-ups, mistakes, or the worst thing they’ve ever done. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone doing that to me!

Rather, I try to say “someone who committed a crime” or “a woman who prostituted.” Personhood is established because they are made in God’s image, regardless of life choices.

What’s even more bizarre to me about “illegal” as a substitute noun for immigrant is that entering the US illegally is a misdemeanor. Seems a bit extreme to use “illegal” as the language identity for someone who committed a misdemeanor!

I hope we can all choose language that attempts to be as respectful to others as possible. As Christians, I feel this is even more important. And I am thrilled that we may see hurtful words that have been tainted by hate disappear from the media.  

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  1. Thank you for your post, Sarah. It is good to critically challenge the words we use to describe people. I work at a migrant shelter, and even the switch from calling people "homeless", to saying they are "people without homes" is an important distinction in the way they are seen as people.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Kristen, and for providing another example. I want to be honoring in my words and sometimes it's helpful for others to say "hey, have you thought about saying this instead?" "People without homes." Thank you!

  2. Love it. Thank you for challenging all of us on how to use our words to build people up, not tear people down.

    1. Thanks, Alyssa. That's a beautiful way to say it!


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