Does the “I” Word Matter?

Immigrant Justice Clinic Students Examine How Words — such as Illegals or Aliens — Affect Our Perceptions of People and Issues

By Stacy Taeuber, Clinical Assistant Professor and Director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic

Stacy TaueberThis past summer, a small group of dedicated and tenacious members of the Latino Law Student Association won a grant from the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment to start the Immigrant Justice Clinic at the UW Law School.
The clinic began this fall with six students. Its mission is to provide legal representation, education, and outreach on behalf of individuals, communities and organizations affected by policy. Through their work at the clinic, students will gain a thorough understanding of this complex area of immigration law and of the interplay between criminal and immigration law. Activities range from representing individuals in deportation proceedings before the immigration court, to conducting “Know Your Rights” presentations to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detainees in the Dodge County Jail, to providing public defenders with information about the immigration consequences of crimes.

It just happened that our clinic started during the heat of the presidential campaign, and the hot-button issue of immigration was much in the news. With that came a debate about language and the terminology we use to describe those who are present in this country without permission. Are they illegals, illegal immigrants, undocumented people, or aliens? Does the language we use matter? The New York Times public editor put out a call for comment on the issue following the launch of a campaign by journalist Jose Antonio Vargas challenging news organizations to stop using the word illegal.

Vargas, a Philippine-born, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, made headlines last year when he “came out” as an undocumented immigrant.

I asked my students to consider this debate and to write a short essay in response. I asked them what terminology they thought was appropriate and whether context mattered. Does it matter what we say in the clinic? In the Law School? At a picnic with friends or with our families? Does it matter what words the media uses? Why or why not? Does language affect our perceptions of people and the issues?

Students were thoughtful and passionate in their responses:

The words we use have a powerful impact on our perceptions. … I believe that people should not be called illegal. Whenever I hear this, I immediately think of people crossing the border from Mexico without any papers.”

“People cannot be illegal; only their actions can.”

“Considering the United States’ historical struggles with race, we must be especially sensitive to not only the explicit consequences of the labels that we use, but the implicit ones as well.”

“[I]llegal immigrants can serve as ‘racial code’ for people of color, especially Latinos, regardless of their migratory status.”

“The language we use in the clinic does matter, and I think the language we use in the clinic should be extended to the Law School and with friends. The only way to end the use of offensive terminology is to stop using it and encourage others to do the same.”

“To simply and arbitrarily label a group of people as illegal, the media ignores the fact that these people are individuals to be respected like the rest of us.”

“[E]ven if using words such as unauthorized and undocumented understates the significance of the immigration issue, the media might still find it desirable to switch to these words instead of using the word illegal. Between understating problems and inflaming hatred and discrimination, I would rather choose the former.”

“Language frames perception, and the acceptance of derogatory, generalizing language makes it easy to view people as something less than human. Illegal immigrants don’t sound like our neighbors or parents of our children’s friends from school … But undocumented people are our neighbors. They do not have status or papers, but they are a part of our American society.”

Several students found it notable that Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority in the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Arizona v. U.S., never used the term illegal immigrant or illegal alien. Students also learned that many of those caught up in the web of immigration enforcement are not, in fact, undocumented at all. Many are lawful permanent residents — green card holders — who find themselves in deportation proceedings on the basis of a criminal conviction (convictions that may be many years old, and that include a whole range of misdemeanors and non-violent offenses).

Clearly, this assignment touched a nerve, and the class had an animated discussion afterwards. When we learned that Jose Antonio Vargas would be speaking on campus, most of my students chose to attend. They found his talk challenging, engaging, and motivating. I found myself reminded of a speech by Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, in which he said:

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. If somebody tells a lie, they are not just a liar. If somebody takes something that doesn’t belong to them, they are not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you are not just a killer. And because of that, there is this basic human dignity that must be respected.”

Similarly, people who are labeled illegal immigrants are much more than just that. The term reduces their identities to a single sliver of their lives. Maybe they are also heroes, teachers, parents, doctors, or our next-door neighbors or best friends. But language can take away their humanity, drive a wedge between us, and portray them as the less worthy, undesirable “other” among us.

Bryan Stevenson concluded, “You judge the character of a society by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated.”

I am proud of my students and honored to have the opportunity to accompany them on the journey of creating this new clinic as we reach out to this marginalized and oft-maligned segment of our community.