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Originally published Monday, May 20, 2013 at 4:13 PM

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Guest: Stop using the term ‘illegal immigrants’

The term “illegal immigrant” is dehumanizing, derogatory and destructive, writes guest columnist Hugo Balta.

Special to The Times

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Sorry Mr Balta. "Illegal immigrants" is exactly what people are when they... MORE
Unlawful presence in the United States is not a crime. It is a complicated civil... MORE
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Stop using illegal immigrant. It’s un-American.

Too often we take words for granted. The results are at best irresponsible, and at worst, discriminatory. The term “illegal immigrant” is dehumanizing, derogatory and destructive.

The i-word is a racial slur that shreds the human rights of 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in this country. It feeds the ignorant perception that they are lower class and undeserving of being protected and treated fairly.

Humans are not illegal. Only their actions can be illegal.

Who are we to play judge and jury? To use the term illegal immigrant is to convict someone of a crime without due process.

Even murderers are not considered illegal. They are legal persons who committed an illegal act. Consider a driver ticketed by police for not having a license. He or she is not called an illegal driver.

Furthermore, the term “illegal immigrant” incorrectly labels anyone in the U.S. without proper documentation as a criminal. Unlawful presence in the United States is not a crime. It is a complicated civil offense.

As president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, I urge journalists to use “undocumented immigrant” or “undocumented worker” when describing this community of hardworking people.

Latinos are driving the population boom, economy and culture of this country.

They’re part of the foundation of Washington state, making up nearly 12 percent of the population according to the U.S. census. Mexican farmworkers in the eastern part of the state, who have suffered through a history of unfair treatment and discrimination, are critical to the agricultural industry.

Latino businesses such as restaurants and radio stations are commonplace in Yakima County, where the percentage of Latinos and whites in the population is almost at parity.

The same can be observed in large cities like Los Angeles, Houston and New York as well as small towns like Ulysses, Kan., Southington, Conn., and Newtown, Conn. Latinos are reviving the downtown areas of these small communities that were long abandoned by the invention of the super-mall strips.

The Associated Press announced in April that it will no longer use the term “illegal immigrant.”

Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explained, “The [AP] 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.”

A prudent decision.

The Seattle Times, Los Angeles Times, Denver Post and other media followed the AP’s lead in dropping the derogatory term, but not The New York Times.

The New York Times only explained that it was updating its policy on the use of illegal immigrant. It allows the use of the term and asks reporters to consider alternatives.

The new policy is inaccurate and insensible. The New York Times’ shift is an attempt to have it both ways by “allowing the phrase to be used” and only “encouraging reporters to consider alternatives.” Instead of taking an opportunity to show it understands how destructive the term is to Latinos, the publication only demonstrated how disconnected it is to this group.

This is a country created for and sustained by people seeking an opportunity and deserving of respect. The use of illegal immigrant or any other demeaning term discredits and questions their motives for being in this country. The discourse is dangerous and at odds with the historical pursuit of the American dream.

Hugo Balta is president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. He lives in West Hartford, Conn. On Twitter @HugoBalta


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