To the Editor of the Washington Post,
I write in regards to the Saturday front page story titled “Young illegal immigrants fly kites and dream of freedom.” I want to address your editor’s choice of wording for the article’s headline.
Why do you continue to use the I-word? The word “illegal” has been used loosely and irresponsibly by mainstream media outlets such as the Washington Post to describe undocumented people. “Illegal” is an inaccurate term, a label also disfavored by lawyers and judges. I’m sure you’ve already heard the arguments that the word “illegal” creates bias against undocumented people, lending credence to an unfounded association with criminality, so I wanted to instead focus on the impact that this word can have when it is used to refer to human beings.
My younger brother and I come from a mixed status family. I am an undocumented immigrant who arrived in the United States at the age of five and he is a ten-year-old who was born in the United States. I became actively involved in the immigrant rights movement as a teenager and by the time my brother was six years old, he wanted to join me in the marches and rallies that I attended. With his innocent smile and love, he would grip my hand tightly and assure me that he was there for me. Nearly 4 years later, he still holds my hand and assures me that I am just like him, that I am a human being.
On Friday morning, my brother and I traveled from New York City to Washington D.C. to partake in the Dreamer Kite Project, a public art project that uses kites as a metaphor for flying and freedom. Along with several other undocumented young people and allies, we flew our kites by the National Monument. My brother and I both felt free. For him it was fun and reminded him that I, his undocumented sister, could fly my kite next to him without any judgment, without any fear, without being treated less than equal. The next day when we both saw my photo on the front page story about the Dreamer Kite Project we were both happy. However, as we read the headline, my little brother asked me “why did they use the I-word?”
If there’s anything you take away from my letter, please let it be this: No human being is illegal. The I-word has been used to fuel racism, hate crimes and bullying. Young children are being impacted negatively by the I-word: children like my brother, children who grow up into undocumented adults and continue to fight for immigration reform like me. By using the I-word, one should take responsibility that their words serve to dehumanize entire communities. When using the I-word, one should take responsibility that words have real and ugly consequences on the fates of real human beings.
My ten-year-old brother is learning that undocumented people like his sister are not being portrayed as human beings. He knows firsthand the injustice that comes with the word “illegal.” He knows that his own humanity is being questioned when someone so close to him is categorized as “illegal.” I know firsthand the injustice, inaccuracy and pain that comes with being called “illegal”. When I was a teenager, I suffered from depression and suicide. I saw how the I-word was being used and it destroyed me.
My brother, who knows all this, held my hand tightly when he saw the article’s headline and assured me again that I am a human being. Can you please explain to my little brother why you continue to use the I-word?
Board Member of the New York State Youth Leadership Council