Anis Vijay Modi
Sometimes, words can mean the world. A persistent derogatory use of one single word can bring communities together, or drive them apart. Here in the United States, wars have been fought in the names of “liberty” and “hope.” Some communities have long fought to take racially or sexually discriminating words out of the public sphere. This time, it is the turn of human rights activists and entire communities of immigrants to praise an oncoming change of words.
The Associated Press, publisher of the influential AP Stylebook used by universities and newspapers across the globe, decided to nix the term “illegal immigrant” from its seminal guideline book. Being the world’s largest news agency and the source of most of the reports we see on the news every day, the company’s decision is sure to impact the news world. Owing to the continuous debates over the topic of immigration, and even more so in this country, the word illegal has been automatically linked to the word immigrant. This results in an almost instant demonization of an entire community of people who are simply seeking out ways to improve their living conditions. I myself was not born in this country, and despite entering the country in legal ways, I have felt the discriminatory weight of the stigma that latches on to the image of an immigrant. The immigrant label, for many people, is automatically connected with a negative image that is not only unfair, but also degrading. In a country that finds its roots in a group of immigrants seeking a safe haven, the cleansing of the “immigrant” image should be warmly welcomed.
Let’s face it. This might not be a decisive action that creates a big change in policy, or even treatment of immigrants throughout the world. A culture where immigrants are labeled as unwanted will still prevail where it has, and the label of an “illegal immigrant” will still be antagonizing many in the course of their lives. Yet this semantic change is a small step in the right direction. Much like the struggles of the African-American and LGTBQ communities, a change of words is all it takes to get the ball rolling. Many personas in the news industry are opposed to this change, as they think that immigrants are indeed illegal. An explanation from the AP’s blog post announcing the change gets exactly at what I am trying to convey: “the stylebook no longer sanctions 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.”
I know, the mixture of words can be confusing, and this entire debate seems a little too dry to have any significant importance in real life. But the jumble of words can be hurtful and discriminatory towards millions of people. Their actions might not be legal at times, yet maybe the change of terminology will help others see that they are only human, just like everyone else.