Why Drop the I-Word? FAQ
Linking immigrants to language like "illegals" (the i-word) is dehumanizing, racist, confuses the immigration debate and it's just not legally accurate. This anti-immigrant strategy has been moved into the media by a web of people and organizations committed to halting and derailing reasoned, informed debate and policy on immigration.
John Tanton, the founding father of America's modern anti-immigration movement, helped spawn a host of organizations like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Center for Immigration Studies and Numbers USA which leverage hate language against immigrants to promote fear and encourage division, they are often quoted by mainstream media outlets.
Back in 2005, political strategist Frank Luntz issued a language memo to Republicans to guide how they framed immigration. "Illegals" is shorthand for "illegal immigrants," the preferred term used to describe undocumented immigrants in his memo. It is no wonder that with clear direction to use "illegal immigrant," the shorthand slur has become just as common among media pundits and political campaigns.
In addition pollsters like Stan Greenberg, Celinda Lake and Guy Molyneaux, engaged by beltway organizations Center for American Progress and America's Voice, recommended that democrats adopt tougher language on immigration to engage more voters and create bipartisanship to achieve immigration reform. At this time political consultant Drew Westen, also recommended that democrats use the i-word to be more effective. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) became one of the biggest cheerleaders for use of the term.
Here are the top 3 reasons to eradicate this hateful term:
Reason #1 It's dehumanizing. The i-word is shorthand for other harmful racially charged terms that dehumanize people. The i-word promotes violence and discrimination. It sends the message that immigrants are sub-human and undeserving.
Reason #2 It's racist. Use of the i-word affects attitudes toward immigrants and non-immigrants alike, most often toward people of African, Asian, and Latin American descent. The discriminatory message is not explicit, but hidden, or racially coded.
Reason #3 It's inaccurate legally and confuses the debate. Immigration judges and attorneys don't use the i-word. Journalists who treat all transgressions as "alleged," - a tenet of ethical and professional journalism, don't use it either. The i-word finds many people guilty before they are tried and ignores the fact that our laws are unjustly applied. Immigrants without documents are regularly hired as cheap, exploited labor with a limited ability to protect their own rights. No one else who benefits from the set up, including the employers who recruit and hire these migrants, is labeled this way.
The i-word is used to unfairly label and scapegoat people who are out of status due to a variety of systemic circumstances. For example, many people:
- Are brought to the country against their will or by employers who often exploit them for cheap labor.
- Fall out of status and overstay their VISAS because of school or employment.
- Risk being killed in their country of origin due to political or religious beliefs or sexual orientation.
- Are affected by natural disasters and/or other reasons beyond their control.
- Are forced by economics and harmful policies like NAFTA to leave their country to simply provide for their families.
- Are on a backlog waiting years to get processed, even when they are eligible to get papers through a relative. Reason.org illustrates this well with a chart of "Our Nation's Broken Immigration and Naturalization System."
Frequently Asked Questions
- What is the appropriate term to use in place of the i-word?
The Colorlines.com style guide in this toolkit includes terms that journalists and others can use to accurately describe a person's situation (e.g. undocumented immigrant, unauthorized immigrant, and immigrant without papers) without being dehumanizing or compromising professional journalistic standards.
The Drop the I-Word campaign's focus is on eradicating the dehumanizing i-word (illegals) from common usage and public discourse. We are not focused on settling on a new term because a single phrase will not be adequate to describe the status of all people caught up in the broken immigration system.
- Is dropping the i-word about being politically correct?
Dropping the i-word is about protecting humanity and dignity. Accusations of political correctness divert the public from a serious conversation about race and the responsibility that media has in reporting the news in a complete and responsible way.
Political parties, interest groups and even some media outlets use anti-immigrant talking points and catch phrases to influence the American public. Language matters - especially if it comes down to labeling human beings and determining their future. It's time we reject all hateful racist language.
- Does dropping the i-word ignore rule of law?
The U.S. is a country of laws, but if the laws are causing inhumane treatment of people, racial profiling and lack of human rights protections, we need to look at how to fix our laws so that they also match our values. Currently, corporations and products have more rights to move across nations than some immigrants do. While businesses freely cross borders, they are not marginalized, penalized or criminalized the same way immigrants have been. There should not be a double standard about our laws, about who gets to break them, and who gets treated humanely.
Below we have listed some ways you can participate with Drop the I-Word.
There is something for everyone, depending on how much time you have and how you'd like to get involved.
In 5 minutes, you can:
Sign the pledge: Go to droptheiword.com or text "IWORD" to 69866.
Spread the word: Ask others to go to droptheiword.com to sign the pledge and read our blog via Twitter, email or Facebook.
In 1-3 hours you can:
Help us track it: I-word watchers help us document usage in newspapers, radio or TV. Note who used it, title of story, date and time and alert us at email@example.com so we can add it to the national picture or give us a shout on Twitter via @droptheiword.
Write a letter to the editor: Use the sample letter to the editor in the toolkit, as a guide. Remind the outlet that the Associated Press stylebook (the standard usage guide used by journalists) expressly says not to use the i-word because it is widely considered dehumanizing. Ask them to stop using the i-word and any variations in stories or headlines.
If you have more time to get involved or get your organization involved you can:
Host a teach-in: Plan an event at your school, church or community center, see the teach-in guide in the toolkit for ideas on planning.
Follow up on your letter to the editor:
Make a call or request an editorial meeting: Start with the reporter and editor in chief and ask them for a few minutes of their time. Tell them about why it's so important to drop the i-word. Present them with the media pledge and provide the sample style guide for their use.
Organize a community meeting: If they don't respond at all or refuse to change, organize family, friends and community members for more support. Use the Drop the I-Word video and discussion guide in the toolkit to introduce the campaign and engage in conversation. Ask them to send letters and make calls too, or organize a coordinated call-in day.
Escalate: If they still don't budge, escalate with a petition (offline or online) and other forms of protest. There are free petition and easy-to-use forms you can use online, or you can circulate a hardcopy petition, whatever works best for you.
Document your efforts and tell us all about them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Organization Pledge and Endorsement
Drop the I-Word!
"Illegals" is a damaging word that divides and dehumanizes communities and is used to discriminate against immigrants and people of color. The I-Word is shorthand for illegal alien, illegal immigrant and other inaccurate and harmful racially-charged terms.
No human being is illegal. Human beings need to be central in immigration discussions in order to move towards a more civilized and humane public discourse, to arrive at humane solutions and policies. We can stop unintentionally fueling racial profiling and violence directed toward immigrants when we Drop the I-Word.
As an endorsing organization, we:
• Affirm the dignity and human rights of all persons
• Use accurate language that reflects our most basic values
• Promote racial equity, justice and unity for a brighter future
We urge our colleagues and ally organizations to join us to ask all media outlets and journalists to uphold ethical and professional journalism standards by dropping the i-word today.
Your pledge will be sent to various media outlets throughout our campaign. Please also send a high-resolution image of your logo to email@example.com so we can include it on our campaign website.
Sample Resolution in support of the Drop The I-Word Campaign
WHEREAS we take great pride in the diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds represented on our campus and our continuing commitment to enhance our great legacy of preparing leaders from all segments of society to make significant contributions all over the world, and
WHEREAS the next generation of leaders understands that immigrant rights is an urgent issue of our day that has been clouded by increasingly hateful and hostile public discourse in media and government, and
WHEREAS we are aware that certain racially derogatory language used in media, political discourse and other institutional settings has historically bolstered the foundation for racially harmful actions including racial profiling practices, punitive policies targeting socially marginalized groups, hate crimes and violence, and
WHEREAS the use of the term illegals (the "I-word") and its derivatives when referring to people dehumanizes and divides communities, contributing to punitive and discriminatory actions aimed primarily at immigrants and communities of color, and
WHEREAS the racially derogatory I-Word endangers basic human rights including the presumption of innocence and the right to due process guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution, and
WHEREAS the I-Word is legally inaccurate since being out of status is a civil rather than criminal infraction and
WHEREAS journalists have an obligation to use neutral language that promotes democratic dialogue and upholds professional ethics and standards, and the term illegals is incorrect and inaccurate usage, as well as unfair and offensive, therefore
LET IT BE RESOLVED that our Students Association believes:
- No human being is illegal
- Human beings need to be central in immigration discussions in order to move toward a more civilized and humane tone in public discourse and policies on immigration
- Foreign nationals, undocumented immigrant, unauthorized immigrant, immigrant without papers and immigrant seeking status are examples of terms we can use that do not dehumanize people. We can all stop unintentionally fueling racial profiling and violence directed toward immigrants, when we Drop the I-Word.
LET IT BE FURTHER RESOLVED that as a community we:
- Affirm the dignity and human rights of all persons
- Use language that reflects our most basic values
- Promote racial equity, justice and unity for a brighter future
LET IT BE FINALLY RESOLVED that we endorse the Drop the I-Word campaign and join communities across the country in asking all media organizations and journalists to uphold ethical and professional journalism standards by dropping the I-Word today.
Sample Letters to the Editor
Use these letters as a guide to craft your own.
If the Topeka Journal values its reputation as a credible, unbiased news source, then it must stop using the term "illegal" immigrants. People are not "illegals" and the term is not legally accurate. "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 the terms either.
The use of the term in the article "ICE Raids Local Rubber Plant" scapegoats an entire community, who should not be blamed for our nation's deeply flawed economic and immigration policies.
Surely, the paper's editors do not intend to dehumanize and criminalize whole communities of people. But that's what you are contributing to. The Journal's use of these words supports the acceptance of stereotypes that often lead to ineffective laws that mostly punish people of color --laws that, as a nation, we come to regret later. Racial epithets used to describe Japanese, American Indians and African Americans have paved the way for racist policies such as detention camps, reservations and Jim Crow laws. It was wrong then, and it's wrong now.
With every reference to humans as "illegal" the Topeka Journal puts its journalistic integrity in jeopardy. These are clearly political and biased terms that have no place in legitimate reporting. The Journal would be doing itself and this community a service by discontinuing this practice.
If the Sexton Courier embraces the values of fairness and human dignity, then it must stop using the term "illegal immigrants" and its derivatives, as you did nine times in the article " 'Illegals' Numbers Grow in the County." Ethical journalism includes respect for due process. It's accepted practice to use the words "accused, "purported," or "alleged" before a case is resolved legally. I know journalists are careful to show respect for due process and a person's constitutional rights, but this term does not.
Using these words plays into the hands of hate groups who seek to divide our communities into "us" versus "them." And we know where that leads us. The latest federal data on hate crimes reports that 35 percent of the cases involved bias based on ethnicity or national origin. Using language that paints whole groups of people as criminals feeds into a national frenzy that scapegoats innocent people for the faults of failed public policy.
There is clearly a small segment of our community that insists on using these words in order to further their agenda. The Courier can choose to rise above this. Spreading the news should not include spreading hate and fear.
Even my computer doesn't recognize "illegals" as a noun. So how do you justify using the word in the article " 'Illegals' Set to be Deported in James County?" How can a newspaper consumed by all audiences repeatedly use a word that is politically biased, morally wrong and grammatically incorrect? Drugs can be illegal, not people. Reporting the facts should not include the dehumanization of an entire community. A top-notch news outlet can maintain ethical standards only when it distinguishes its stylebook from that of hate-mongers.
Document your efforts and tell us all about them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Video Discussion Guide
Use this discussion guide to spark conversation after you show the Drop the I-Word video:
1. What are some ways that the common use of the term "illegals" (the i-word) effects undocumented immigrants? Documented immigrants? People of color? White people?
2. When a person, rather than an action, is referred to as "illegal," what are the implications?
3. What are some ways the mainstream media's use of the i-word shapes public opinion about immigrants and immigration issues?
4. What are some ways that popular usage of the i-word affects immigration policies and law enforcement practices?
5. Do you agree that the i-word is a racially charged and pejorative term? Why or why not?
6. How does the i-word compare to other terms considered to be racially charged that have been used in contemporary or historic discourse to describe other communities?
7. What ways do immigrant restrictionists/anti-immigrant proponents benefit by using the i-word (and getting others to use it)?
8. Why do you think much of the mainstream media has so readily adopted the use of the i-word?
9. Do you think it meets the journalistic standards of accuracy and fairness?
10. What role can media consumers play in shaping media discourse, such as the media's use of the i-word? What actions could people take to change the discourse and do you think they would make a difference?
11. What alternative terms could you suggest that accurately, fairly and respectfully describe undocumented immigrants?