Because words matter
While she was visiting and speaking at Yale Law School, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor caused some ripples with her use of the term "undocumented immigrants" instead of "illegal alien." (This was not the first time Sotomayor had used the term, but she was asked a direct question about it.) Pundit Laura Ingraham even went so far as to claim that Sotomayor's allegiance was primarily to her "immigrant family," implying that the Supreme Court Justice could not function as an unbiased member of the most powerful court in the country. (As a side note, Sotomayor's family is from Puerto Rico, which makes them United States citizens, and neither illegal nor alien.)
Sotomayor claimed that the term "alien" was insulting, saying, “I think people then paint those individuals as something less than worthy human beings and it changes the conversation,” Sotomayor said. In other words, the term "illegal alien" allows the rest of us to keep our mental distance. If they are both illegal and alien, then why should we care?
The backlash against Sotomayor was hardly surprising, but it is important, even when the difference between "undocumented immigrant" and "illegal alien" seems only a matter of semantics anyway. Words matter. There is a reason that we don't use racial slurs. The words that we use to describe people matter, and it has everything to do with allowing the people we name to be seen and embraced as fully human. This is why it is so important to choose our words carefully.
Immigration reform has been getting a great deal of coverage in this past year, and even though just about everyone seems to think that we need to do something to fix the system, the bill is still stagnated in Congress. But maybe, for those of us not in Congress or in a position to get something done directly, a small change in the words that we use could start to change our attitudes, both about immigration reform and about undocumented persons.
Image: Public domain via Wikimedia.