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.