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Drop the I-Word, Demand Respect for Humanity

By December 2, 2010No Comments

By Angela

New Organizing Project blogger


As you read this, you may ask, “what is the ‘I’ word?” Is it a new hip phrase that is going around? Well, no, not at all.

The I-word refers to the offensive labeling of undocumented people as “illegal” or “illegal aliens.” As ColorLines defines the word, “illegal(s)” 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 harmful racially charged terms.

Within the public discourse about the immigration debate, the terms “illegal” or “illegal alien” is heard and read very commonly. When you watch CNN, or any news broadcast or read the New York Times, LA Times, or any other readings about the immigration debate, you may have noticed how casually the term is used. Because of such common usage, the negative implications of using the I-word are often overlooked.

However, if you look more closely and deeply to the usage of the “I” word, the impact of using the word is far more damaging than what may seem on the surface. The simple use of the word “illegal” has numerous negative implications that are embedded within.

First of all, the I-word is unfair. It selectively applies to immigrants but not others and blames individuals for problems that are largely systemic as the broken immigration system. The word also instills a negative image and confirms the stereotype of the undocumented. The term breeds anti-immigrant hate speech and crimes that are mostly directed at people of color. By using the word, you may not realize but you are making racist remarks against the undocumented and embracing a racial stereotype. Although the use of the word may not be intentional and you may remain unaware of the implications when you use the word, the impacts are very harmful.

Secondly, the word is inaccurate. The term inaccurately reduces someone’s whole identity to a crime. Moreover, the I-word dehumanizes and criminalizes people by defining their entire being as illegal. However, truth lies in that no human being is illegal. The lack of a nine digit number does not make any human being “illegal.” Thus, using the word ultimately reinforces racial divisions by creating a sentiment of scapegoating by blaming a lot of society’s problems to the undocumented community.

Lastly, the word is biased. It is a partisan term that commonly evokes xenophobia, racism, and nativism. The word creates the frame that they are a criminal, sub-human, second class status, deserving punishment, undeserving of respect, rights or resources and therefore justified to deny human rights and civil liberties.

The growing awareness of the negative implications of the word led to a campaign called Drop the I-Word. It is a nationwide campaign to redefine the way we talk about the undocumented population. The purpose of the campaign is to demand recognition of the dignity and humanity of the undocumented and to achieve institutional racial justice within the immigration debate. It is a movement to eliminate the I-word from popular usage from media outlets and public discourse and to encourage respectful, accurate and fair language in everyday talk. “Through the I-Word Campaign, our community of everyday people, business leaders, human rights advocates, religious and labor groups, attorneys and journalists nationwide call on media outlets to uphold reason, dignity and ethics by dropping the I-Word” says the website.

Will you join us and take the pledge to drop the I-word and recognize the dignity of humanity of the undocumented? Sign the pledge at

You wouldn’t call someone a w*tback, or the n-word. Saying “illegals” is just as bad.

“The I-Word creates an environment of hate by exploiting racial fear and economic anxiety, creating an easy scapegoat for complex issues, and OK-ing violence against those labeled with the word.

People are not illegal.      Let’s stop feeding the hate machine.      Drop the I-Word.