Culture TEDx

Rethinking the term ‘illegal’ immigrant: Because people can’t be illegal

Posted by: Hailey Reissman

Last week, the Associated Press announced its decision to remove the term “illegal immigrant” from the AP Stylebook. In a blog post by Director of Media Relations Paul Colford, AP’s executive editor Kathleen Carroll revealed the news: “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.”

TEDx speaker and former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas has been one of the outspoken critics of this term. At age 16, he found out he’d been brought to the United States illegally as a child. In a frank and moving talk given at TEDxMidAtlantic, “I am an illegal immigrant,” Vargas reveals what it’s like to “come out” as a person living in the United States without documentation, and explains his objections to using the word “illegal” to describe people.

“It’s actually legally inaccurate to refer somebody as an illegal, because to be in this country without papers is a civil offense, not a criminal one,” he says. “As I stand here right now, there are tens of thousands of students across America who are here without papers, and I would hate to think that they’re sitting in their classrooms listening to us talk about them and internalizing the word ‘illegal.’ … It’s incredibly dehumanizing and pejorative and [so many connotations] come with it — negative, all of them. That we’re criminals. That we’re not supposed to be within even the block that you live in or the school that you go to. Actions are illegal — never people. Something is terribly wrong when we refer to people as ‘illegal.’”

Watch Vargas’ talk, above.

Comments (10)

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  • Jeffs Drake commented on Apr 12 2013

    Laws are created by human beings and may do more harm than good. Once it was illegal to break “Jim Crow” laws. Like immigration laws, they made it illegal to be certain places because of who you were. It was illegal to be in the front of the bus if you were black in many places, and that was enforced by the police and the courts. “Law,” written by people, is not the same as what is good, true, right, or moral.

    Crime is an “offense, serious wrongdoing, or sin,” by one definition. Our immigration laws make it illegal to work, to drive, here in this country for those who are not citizens or who don’t have the paperwork. Illegal, yes, a crime… not by my definition.

    So what do we do about the kids brought here by their parents at two, four, six years of age? Those born here? They are not guilty of their parent’s crime. They had no choice, understanding, nor autonomy. This man didn’t know he was not a citizen until he was 16. Shall we have no compassion? Punish him for something he had no power over? Throw out a productive member of society?

    Shall we go back and look at all of the broken treaties between the U.S. and the native tribes of this country and, in enforcing those treaties (the law), make all the non-native peoples of those areas “Illegals?” Might we argue that “I was born here, I’m an innocent?” Or perhaps, “But that law has not been enforced, it would be unfair to enforce it now.”

  • Georgina Gourd commented on Apr 11 2013

    Yes there is a line, Mr. Jose Antonio Vargas, and law-abiding immigrants stay in that line. And yes, it costs them money, time and other resources, but it’s the law.

    Why do certain type of persons always find it easier to get loud and screw the law, rather than take their places in the line?

  • Gary Doss commented on Apr 10 2013

    Our very essence is a collective. Technology has transitioned us toward that end on a global scale.
    As for deciding who is allowed to join a subgroup of this vast collective?
    Qualities like character, education and sense of community. Resources would define population density.

  • commented on Apr 9 2013

    Asylum seekers are far too frequently criticised for not following the official routes of seeking asylum, and thus they often receive the nicknames ‘queue-jumpers’ or ‘illegals’. Would you criticise Jews for not following the official routes of seeking asylum from Nazist Germany? How, then, can we justify our discrimination once again against those who are fleeing their countries for better lives? Is it not something we all strive for – to live better and more fulfilling lives – and in desperation would do anything for?

    Unfortunately – and I believe very strongly that it is a result of the system that we live in – xenophobia is far too prevalent. In Australia it became a political goldmine to discuss not how best to help asylum seekers become integrated into Australia, but how to keep them out at all costs. Our neoliberal ‘Liberal Party of Australia’ frequently used (and still does use) the slogan “we’ll stop the boats.” Even the ‘social democratic’ Australian Labor Party put forward strategies and plans on how to keep asylum seekers away from Australia’s mainland.

    How denigrating could it possibly get? They have encouraged in supposedly one of the most multicultural societies of the world a fear of outsiders, nationalism, patriotism and racism. Is it any wonder that we have embedded into our culture a knee-jerk reaction to these ‘illegals’?

    It is unfortunate when we decide to focus on the divisions in humanity instead of the commonalities between all of us. When has it ever been okay to deny a better life for a discriminated-against human being when we can very much accomodate it? We grow up learning the line ‘put yourself in their shoes’; let’s, for once, think about that.

  • commented on Apr 8 2013

    I loved that post. The speaker has a sense of humour, but more importantly, he made his talk interesting, and easy to understand. I agree; people are never illegal- actions are. They are people- to call them illegal means that they’ve done something wrong. We need to be careful with the words we use- once we criminalize people they are dehumanized. It’s dangerous.

    Why is it against the law, to simply move without going through the “proper” steps? Does it make them any less of a person? Does it make their loyalty to the country they are in/going to any less real? I liked the end with the cover and as he described everybody. They are people- with names. They have jobs, they have interests. They can help to make the place what it is- that one person who is in nonprofit organizations- why do they need to prove themselves as legal to be validated by society?

    • Georgina Gourd commented on Apr 11 2013


      Definition of ILLEGAL

      : not according to or authorized by law : unlawful, illicit;

      The wrong they’ve done is they have broken the Immigration and Naturalization Act on the first place, and a bunch of other laws.

      • Jeffs Drake commented on Apr 12 2013

        And what of those born here, whose parents broke the immigration laws? Their parents broke the law, but they did not. Same for the baby brought here by his parents. What are we to do with them 15, 20, 30 years later? Where do we draw the line… with five year holds, ten year olds, those who came over without their parents bringing them? There are many who took no criminal actions and yet, are not here legally. To consider them criminals is like considering a child a criminal because he unknowingly ate food stolen by his parent.

        And what of those who broke Jim Crow laws? Was Rosa Parks a criminal? Following the law to the letter is not always the right thing to do. We have to think about situations, circumstances, morality, and the greater good.

        One definition of illicit is “disapproved of or not permitted for moral or ethical reasons.” I believe that in many cases we should not permit, on moral grounds, the breaking up of families who have been here for a long time and the deportation of children and adults who would be strangers in their parent’s countries, often unable to speak the language of where we would deport them too. Deporting productive Americans who contribute to society is harmful to them, and to our country. Surely we must consider this harm in reforming our immigration laws.

  • commented on Apr 8 2013

    I think it’s fine the way it is said