Sometimes there are no words. This morning we were shocked see the following clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle:
54 Across: One Caught By Border PatrolAnswer: ILLEGAL
As soon as one of our vigilant Drop the I-Word campaign supporters* emailed us about it this morning we called the crossword hotline to verify the answer, because it was just so unbelievable. A game is the last place for this type of language, which has very real consequences in peoples’ lives. As people who care about human dignity and the law, to say we are disappointed, does not begin to cover it.
While the New York Times still has not dropped the dehumanizing, racially charged, legally inaccurate term “illegal immigrant” for which “illegals” is shorthand, we were encouraged that they at least were clear on not using the term as a noun. Years ago Lawrence Downes, a member of the editorial board of the New York Times wrote What Part of ‘Illegal’ Don’t you understand?, a primer explaining the harms of the i-word, which Will Shortz, the Times crossword puzzle editor and puzzle master for NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, must have missed. Shortz also may have missed the big to-do in December when Times writer and former Executive Editor Bill Keller and Standards Times Editor Phil Corbett addressed the use of “illegals” after Keller was bombarded with reader comments to retract the use of the word. Phil Corbett in an email to Keller:
I do think “illegals” as a shorthand noun has an unnecessarily pejorative tone, and it is routinely used by the anti-immigration side … It might be worth cautioning against “illegals” in the style book entry, though if i do that, I will wait for a decent interval — otherwise some suspicious observer will assume the change is aimed at you.
Keller writes at the end of his blog:
Well, vigilant readers, the good news is, you seem to have gotten the style book updated. And I’ll resist that particular shorthand in the future.
For the record, any “one caught by border patrol” as Shortz’s clue says, still has the right to due process, the presumption of innocence, and a fair day in court, a vital part of our democracy and international human rights law, which the “illegal” label denies.
And also for the record, a person who crosses the border without authorization is described by law as a person or immigrant “entering without inspection.” That alone is a civil infraction, explained attorney Dave Bennion. Even back in the 70s, the Carter administration did not use the terms “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien.” And now, Chief Justice Roberts and Associate Justice Sotomayor don’t use it. “Illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant” are incoherent terms from the standpoint of immigration law. Immigration judges and ICE attorneys don’t use the terms because they are meaningless in the context of immigration proceedings. The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), the highest administrative body for interpreting and applying immigration laws, does not use them either. There is no court in this land that finds people to be “illegal.” People who describe others as “illegal” act as judge and jury–and a bad judge and jury at that. The term “illegal” has been so normalized, but once we know all of the ways in which it’s wrong and harmful, there really is no excuse to continue using it.
From a Shortz’ profile in The Atlantic:
Every crossword in the Times is a collaboration between the puzzle-maker and the puzzle editor. On average, about half the clues are mine. I may edit as few as five or ten percent of the clues, or as many as 95 percent for someone who does a great puzzle but not great clues. Why accept a puzzle when I’m going to edit 95 percent of the clues? Well, if someone sends me a great puzzle with an excellent theme and construction–you want fresh, interesting, familiar vocabulary throughout the grid–I feel it would be a shame to reject it on account of the clues, because I can always change them myself.
Help us reach out to The Times and Shortz via Twitter for a retraction. Click to send this tweet.
A huge thanks to Erin who sent this to us. How do you see the i-word being used? Let us know! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.