Cepeda Says Shorthand Term 'Illegals' Is An Insult A discussion has taken shape about the language used to describe people who are in the U.S. illegally. Some say "undocumented workers," others say "illegal alien" or "illegal immigrant." Columnist Esther Cepeda argues that those who use the shorthand term "illegals" intend to use it as an insult.

Cepeda Says Shorthand Term 'Illegals' Is An Insult

Cepeda Says Shorthand Term 'Illegals' Is An Insult

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A discussion has taken shape about the language used to describe people who are in the U.S. illegally. Some say "undocumented workers," others say "illegal alien" or "illegal immigrant." Columnist Esther Cepeda argues that those who use the shorthand term "illegals" intend to use it as an insult.


This week, Congress debates a bill to offer some illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, the so-called DREAM Act. It passed in the House of Representatives, but is believed to have no chance in the United States Senate. And part of the argument over immigration includes a debate on how to describe the people it's about. I just used the term illegal immigrants. Others prefer undocumented workers or illegal aliens, sometimes simply illegals.

We want to hear from immigrants in our audience. Is this language important? And if so, why? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. The email address: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Columnist Esther Cepeda wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post Writers Group titled "'Illegal'? Well, that's debatable." There's a link at npr.org. And the columnist joins us now by phone from Chicago.

Nice to have you with us on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. ESTHER CEPEDA (Columnist, Washington Post Writers Group): Hi there, Neal. Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: And is this a debate about accuracy, neutrality?

Ms. CEPEDA: No. You know what? I think it really is a debate about respect, and it is a debate about being careful how you say things. You know, I think one thing that's really important to put into this context is that immigrants and Hispanics have felt very, very, very violently opposed by some people who would slur them with a term like illegals. Those things really, you know, go to the heart of the matter.

And, you know, some people who are advocates or even activists for the issue of illegal immigration have kind of gone over and focused on this, because it is important. It's kind of like the day-to-day thing that could hit you in the donut shop when you least expect it. But, you know, as part of the larger immigration reform conversation, it's perhaps not the most important conversation that we, as Americans and as new citizens, could be having.

CONAN: Words are important, you wrote, but a great deal of passion has been spilt in an argument that's not central to the debate.

Ms. CEPEDA: I - yeah. That's exactly what my point was. I mean, when the - and this is a debate that's been going on for years. You know, when the Sensenbrenner law came up in 2005 and all of the national marches came up, some of these issues came up. And people were talking about, how do we talk about this? How do we frame the debate? How do we talk about people?

But, you know, as the years have gone by, as we're really talking about trying to get comprehensive immigration reform through, and when you're looking at, you know, these stories started really popping up around Thanksgiving in preparation for something like the DREAM Act. I just felt like this is sucking the air out of a way bigger conversation that we should be having about what the benefits are of the DREAM Act, specifically for a country who's facing an economic downturn and could see some value in bringing in young, currently illegal aliens or illegal immigrants into our system and helping them thrive.

CONAN: Yet your piece also brought some clarity to the debate over the terminology itself, including over the word alien, which, as you point out, goes back to the 18th century.

Ms. CEPEDA: Absolutely. I talked to a historian over at Cornell University. And he was really clear that, at that time, that the term alien was not thought of as an epithet or demeaning. It was alien -alienages laws in the U.S. that provided many times extensive rights to non-citizens, including voting rights.

Now, again, you have to keep this in the context of it. There have been five years of people who are angry about illegal immigration who've using this word angrily, in a slurring way, and I can really understand how people would get passionate about kind of revolting against language that is personally attacking. But at the same time, you know, when I talk to DHS, when I talk to immigrations and Customs, immigration services, they say the same thing: We go by the letter of the law. Illegal immigrant, illegal alien, those are terminologies that can be found in the law. And, you know, that's what they go by.

CONAN: Obviously, alien, to some degree, colored by its more modern use, in terms of ravenous beings from outer space as well.

Ms. CEPEDA: Yeah, exactly. So it has - it has very, very negative connotations. But even the worst, you know, specifically - and I called this out in the essay that I wrote, is that when you use the term illegals just by itself, like if you see that in a headline, that in and of itself is really particularly dehumanizing. And the AP has come out and said, you know, we're not going to use illegals. That's not the standard we go with - illegal aliens, illegal immigrants.

So I think it's really important to keep in mind that while I think that there should be a lot more effort to kind of educate the community about the actual issues of immigration reform and how we could help, you know, our country in general, these are very hurtful issues for some people. And I do understand why people would really put some effort behind getting passionate about making sure how people talk about immigrants.

CONAN: The term illegal immigrants seems to be about as neutral as you can get. And you say the AP cited that as both neutral and accurate.

Ms. CEPEDA: Exactly. And that's kind of what tipped this whole thing off. The Fresno Bee in California wrote this eight-day series, this beautifully reported series about all the issues surrounding illegal immigration in California's Central Valley. And they're talking about it from an economic perspective, a personal perspective, a bureaucratic perspective, political perspective. And yet what garnered the headlines is that some of the people reading the pieces were just inflamed because the newspaper took the Associated Press Stylebook's standard of calling illegal immigrants illegal immigrants. And they were just inflamed. It was like the entire conversation went off of how this issue affects a particular community. And it became all about language.

And, you know, there just isn't enough really good, balanced reporting about the issue of immigration to begin with. So to see kind of a tour de force effort derailed by what is, you know, not the most important, pressing issue, you know, for the, you know, the immigration debate was what really spurred me to write this.

CONAN: There is, on the other - I guess on the other end of the spectrum, undocumented immigrant or undocumented worker, which a lot of people find simply a euphemism that ducks the issue.

Ms. CEPEDA: Absolutely. I mean, some people just - you know, they're wedded to this idea of, you know, being Americans who abide by the letter of the law. And it's very specifically correct to talk about people who are in the United States illegally. And so if you take that out of the descriptor, it becomes to them just, you know, a euphemism, it becomes vague, it becomes political propaganda. And you know, you can kind of come down on either way on that. But my whole argument is: go with what the federal government uses in their language.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Esther Cepeda, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. There's a link to her column, "'Illegal'? Well, That's Debatable," at our website. That's at npr.org. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Ali, Ali is with us from Charleston in West Virginia.

ALI (Caller): Hello. This is Ali. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

ALI: I just want to say I don't have any problem with the terms of illegal aliens because it took me years to come legally to this country and it took my family over 13 years to go - enormous process to come legally to this country. And so I'm really not happy that we'd just blank everybody, make them legalize with no process. And the terms of illegal alien or illegal immigrant, I don't have any problem with that.

CONAN: You would not be concerned that some in that group or many in that group might find the word alien demeaning or disturbing.

ALI: No, this is the terms we use in United States and they got to - if they want to come to this country, they should come legally. And if they don't like, they have to live with the terms that the government assign or people assign to them. It's nothing wrong about calling them illegal alien or illegal immigrant. If they all get offended, they just maybe go back and be in the country they come from.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Ali. And Esther Cepeda, the voices of legal immigrants are among the most powerful in this debate.

Ms. CEPEDA: Absolutely. I mean, you know, you talk about people who have also been through this long process and feel very protective, you know, once they get to the other side of what that process was. You know, one of the things that I asked DHS when I talked to them was, you know, if people wanted to change these terminologies, what would they have to do?

Well, Congress would actually have to pass a law. So put that into context. Are you going to spend your effort into untangling some of the knots that really make the immigration law difficult and burdensome for people? Or are you gonna, you know, lobby to get the terminology changed?

You know, I just - I can't see expending a lot of effort or tears on that. But certainly lots of other people have a different opinion.

CONAN: Let's go next to Brian, Brian with us from Cambridge in England.

BRIAN (Caller): Hi, Neal, thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

BRIAN: Love, love, love the show, and I'm so appreciative of everything that you do.

CONAN: You have a very powerful radio receiver.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRIAN: Thanks to the wonders of the Internet. My wife's actually American, and I lived there for five years. And during that time - can I first say that I wish, I wish, I wish every American citizen could experience what it means to go through the process to become an American citizen, because I think they would have greater appreciation for their negative remarks towards immigrants, firstly.

And secondly, during that process, other than the fact I was made to feel very, very unwelcome - and understanding that I'm from what most people would recognize as being America's closest ally, in the modern context - my descriptor was illegal resident alien, and I personally found that to be very offensive. I didn't appreciate it at all.

And I felt that there was no attempt made to embrace me or welcome me to within the culture. And I felt that was very sad, because obviously I had a very big - a big desire to experience that. Especially given that I have two children who are both Americans who were born in America, I very much did want to embrace the culture.

CONAN: And did you finally triumph over all the bureaucratic hurdles and become an American citizen?

BRIAN: I did not. We ended up returning to the United Kingdom. I found the bureaucratic procedures that were necessary to enter America to be draconian. And I think - again, that might sound extreme to anybody listening who hasn't experienced it. To anyone listening who has gone through that process, they will relate to that comment. In no way suggestive of the nature and the history of the country. Funnily enough, the flip to that, my wife, when she came to England originally, and we lived here for two years prior to moving to the States, it took her 45 minutes in the British embassy to be awarded a visa to come here. It's simply a matter of context.

What I find to be disingenuous is that - and this is one of my favorite catchphrases living in the States. You know, we spent five years living there. I seem to remember the good people of Boston having a problem with taxation without representation. And they held a party to celebrate that, right? (Laughs)

I, as a citizen of the United States and a permanent resident alien, was perfectly entitled to pay all manner of taxation but was not entitled to a vote within my time being there. I would have been fine with that, but I wasn't very happy with the way in which I was labeled and treated as a resident. And I have no reason to have an axe to grind, and many, many people who come to the United States, as I'm sure you can appreciate, do.

CONAN: Brian, I hope you managed to throw some weak coffee into Boston Harbor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRIAN: I love the United States. I had a wonderful time living there. And clearly I loved it so much I married one of your citizens. I have nothing but fantastic memories. My two children are both Americans, and we hope to spend very many more happy years in the States.

CONAN: Well, we're glad your problems with your status did not cause us - cost us a listener.

BRIAN: Oh no. Thank you, Neal. I only wish that - as I say, people who debate this, people who talk about this, I hope that they would have a greater understanding of the issues connected to becoming a citizen or a resident of the United States before they start espousing their views about how people are trying to get into the States and treat it in an unlawful manner.

CONAN: Brian, thanks very much. Appreciate the phone call.

Ms. CEPEDA: Yes.

BRIAN: Thank you so much, Neal.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And I'm sorry, Esther Cepeda, you were trying to say?

Ms. CEPEDA: You know, I was going to say that to go on - to just follow up on Brian's point, is that, you know, so much time and effort could be spent on talking about the innumerable benefits of people who are here as immigrants, who are here legally, and are trying to go through the process, who, you know, we really should be welcoming with open arms. And yet this whole debate is so clouded and so passionate that, you know, nobody is really thinking about immigrants anymore. People are only thinking about illegal immigrants. And that's really - that's really a shame for all of us.

CONAN: Here's two emails we have with different vantage points. This from Chico, California, from Sam: I am now a legal immigrant. I entered the country legally. For some time during my immigration process, I was out of status, meaning I could be deported at any time. My lawyer stressed to me quite firmly to never refer to myself as an illegal immigrant, as even though I could be deported, I wasn't, and I could risk my own immigration application by calling myself as such. The term illegal immigrant needs to be use accurately. I think undocumented is far more accurate for general use.

This from Sam: These people are illegal, sir, whether you like it or not. They did not come into this country as legal visitors, and being polite and calling them undocumented people is just hogwash. I am a legal immigrant and worked very hard to be rewarded with this privilege. Whether it is dehumanizing, impolite or mean, it is the true description of these folk.

And I guess there is going to continue to be tears and passions spilled over this debate, Esther.

Ms. CEPEDA: Absolutely. I mean, this is definitely not over with. And it's going to take some time for us as a country to kind of, you know, cool down and get some perspective on what's happening right now. I mean, we can look back on some of the conversations that were happening after the '80s amnesty. And, you know, you just don't remember that in the '90s and the 2000s. Nobody was, you know, was really passionate about this.

But you know, it's going to take a couple of years for immigration reforms to actually happen and then be put into place. And it's kind of an ongoing process as to how we as Americans are going to change our language to befit whatever reality that we end up with legislatively.

CONAN: Esther Cepeda, thanks very much for your time. She's a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll see you again on Monday.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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