Almost all Americans today come from immigrant blood, unless they are Native-American Indians. It may have been several generations ago, but even Europeans who first stepped foot onto American soil were immigrants. For a while now, the topic of legalizing immigration has been a contentious and hotly-debated one, with news media influencing the way immigrants — especially Latina/os — are portrayed, conceived, and conveyed to the public and American society. Media have taken the phrase “illegal immigrant” and applied it to shape an unsavory portrayal of Latino/a immigrants, subsequently influencing how others view Latino/as, a whole (Rosa, 2012).
The discriminatory and derogatory use of the word “illegal” when referring to immigrants should be eradicated from news media outlets and journalism in general because it perpetuates a negative and ill-conceived image of hispanic and Latino/a peoples, as well as immigrants of other ethnicities. Consciously or subconsciously, audiences that consume the news often internalize these views as their own and will hold prejudiced opinions about anyone that appears to fit the physical description of what they assume to be an immigrant.
The term “illegal” itself is a deceptive and highly disparaging word because, as Rosa pointed out in Contesting Representations of Immigration, it “becomes a way of characterizing not just one’s migration status, but also one’s entire person.” To call a person “illegal” is criminalizing, and it leads to unfair profiling of an entire minority group. What makes one immigrant “illegal” and another not? By designating any group of people under an “illegal” category, we are dehumanizing and disregarding them as people who are no different than anyone else who lives in America. This prevents others from seeing that they deserve respect, empathy, and the right to pursue a better life for themselves and their children. Calling undocumented immigrants “aliens” or “illegal” is a way white politicians and gatekeepers of the news use language to influence the nation’s view into seeing any foreign-looking peoples as a threat, or as “invaders” who don’t belong (Wilson, Gutierrez, Chao, 2014).
The implications of using these linguistic devices are hard to quantify, because most people don’t even realize that they’re guilty of also harboring these racist and xenophobic views. Another reason why Latino/as have not been more outspoken about their rejecting of the term “illegal” as a valid descriptor, is because of the lack of Latino representation in network news — despite the Latin community being the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the United States.
The general public only hears stories of white people being represented, and by and large, in a relatively neutral — if not positive — light. Non-whites are then usually left out of the equation.
Rosa, J. D. (2012). Contesting Representations of Immigration. Anthropology News. Retrieved
Wilson, C. C., Gutiérrez, F., & Chao, L. M. (2013). Social Function of News in Society. In
Racism, sexism, and the media: Multicultural issues into the new communications age (4th ed., p. 128). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.