5 Reasons Christians Need to Stop Using the Term 'Illegal Immigrant'

2010 protest in Los Angeles, Juan Camilo Bernal /

2010 protest in Los Angeles, Juan Camilo Bernal /

Editor's Note: In April, Associated Press representatives said they would no longer recommend the term "illegal immigrant" in the influential AP Style Guide used by many in print media. However, the term is still used by many media outlets and in common parlance. Our hope is that more will follow the AP's lead and rethink its usage.

As the Senate recently passed long awaited immigration overhaul and the bill now heads to the House, the long-standing national discourse on the issue of immigration will likely heat up again. As we participate in these discussions, my hope is that we, especially as Christians tasked with peacemaking and reconciling, will find ways to build bridges instead of erecting walls. As a first step in this bridge building, I pray that once and for all, we will stop using the term “illegal immigrant.”

Here's why:

1. The term “illegal immigrant” is a misleading and dishonest term, which violates the 9th commandment.

The term “illegal immigrant” lends one to believe that an individual is currently doing something illegal, or that their presence in our country is an ongoing, illegal act. In regards to undocumented workers, this is simply not the case. The crime that undocumented workers commit is a violation of “8 U.S.C. § 1325: Entry of Alien at improper time or place,” a federal misdemeanor. Their crime is crossing the border at the improper time and place; however, they are not currently doing anything that is illegal.

Therefore, using this term that has a less-than-honest connotation, is a violation of the commandment to not “bear false witness against our neighbors.”

Words Matter: Why the AP Will No Longer Call People 'Illegal'

People march on International Workers' Day in LA to support immigration reform. Juan Camilo Bernal/

The Associated Press announced Tuesday it is dropping the term "illegal immigrant" from its Stylebook. Citing concern for “labeling people, instead of behavior,” AP’s Senior Vice President and Executive Editor, Kathleen Carroll, wrote, “The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term 'illegal immigrant' or the use of 'illegal' to describe a person. ...'Illegal' should describe only an action.

This change is a huge win for those working on immigration reform, including the staff at Sojourners. Last fall, Sojourners joined many others in calling on the Associated Press to change the term.

“The media’s usage of the word 'illegalis dehumanizing and distorting," wrote Sojourners Immigration Campaigns Fellow Ivone Guillen in October. "When used by journalists, it introduces a bias into their reporting and risks prejudicing the reader against the needs, concerns, and humanity of immigrant communities, regardless of their documentation status.

Remind the AP That People Aren’t 'Illegal'

filmfoto / Shutterstock

Rubber stamp in hand marked with illegal. filmfoto / Shutterstock

The words we use are powerful, especially when it comes to talking about people created in God’s image. Word choice shapes how people perceive events and respond to the arguments made by people in the public arena. As Christians, we are called to speak up when our society uses language that dehumanizes and degrades our brothers and sisters.

Journalists and others in the media should be the first to understand this phenomenon. Unfortunately, reporters from TV stations and newspapers still label undocumented immigrants as “illegal.” This dehumanizing term robs people of their dignity and prejudices readers against the real needs of immigrant communities.

These reporters often follow the standards set by the Associated Press Stylebook, which is the authoritative guide for journalists across the country on everything from punctuation to word choice. &Nbsp;

Dropping the 'I' Word

Speech bubble image, Petr Vaclavek /

Speech bubble image, Petr Vaclavek /

A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1 

I often wonder how frequently people think about the impact their words have on others, specifically, on the development of human perception. The conclusion I’ve sadly reached is that when a language norm is established by dominant cultural forces —such as the news media, in our day – the truth seldom matters. Once something is spoken and repeated enough times people consider it to be true regardless of the real facts or circumstances.

One recent debate clearly illustrating the power of words is around which terminology the media should use when referencing immigrants who are in this country without authorization to work. Those outlets that use the word “illegal” defend this practice by pointing to the Associated Press’ Stylebook, which designates “illegal” as the appropriate term. Those using the term “undocumented” have noted the changing circumstances within the culture and recognize that using such inflammatory terminology only adds fuel to the proverbial political fire around the issue of immigration

Uganda Revives Anti-Gay Bill

Man holding Bible speaks during anti-homosexuality rally in Kamapala, Uganda

Man holding Bible speaks during anti-homosexuality rally in Kamapala, Uganda 2/14/10. Photo by AFP/Getty Images.

CORRECTION: After our original post ran yesterday, we learned that there has been some confusion over the language of the current proposed language of the Ugandan anti-gay bill. In fact, the death penalty has not yet been dropped from the text of the bill.

According to news reports, a Ugandan Member of Parliament has introduced a revised bill that is expected to be acted on within a few days.