When “Illegals” are not Illegal.

“Illegals”.  It’s a shorthand noun to group undocumented immigrants into a one word slogan.  It’s a poor use of the English language and it’s confusing.

There is an ongoing defense of the use of this slur by right-wing talkers and legislators.  Any internet comment zone will defend it’s use, but the reason this term exists is it is a politically valuable epithet to those worried that they are losing their culture or power in our society.

Yesterday, President Elect Trump, who is not known for his attention to linguistic details used this term completely out of context.  To be used properly, to distinguish it from an outright slur, “illegals” should be short hand for “illegal immigrant” which should be refer to breaking the laws of the United States.  It has no meaning in Germany, especially when he is talking about legal Syrian refugees.

Here, via John Amato, is the quote President Elect Trump had with editors from the UK’s Times and Germany’s Bild.

“I think she made one very catastrophic mistake, and that was taking all of these illegals, you know, taking all of the people from wherever they come from, and nobody even knows where they come from.”

Given this use in this sentence, how are we to understand this word if it has no connection to legal status?  The word he is looking for is of course “immigrants” but it comes out as “illegals”.

The battle for and against the use of the slur “illegals” is not new.

Here is an excerpt from a column from 2006 by a Denver Post staff columnist Cindy Rodriguez.

When figuring ways to shape public opinion, the first thing any savvy strategist does is craft phrases that will elicit a desired response….

That is exactly what is happening with the immigration debate.

To avoid dealing with complex problems in our nation – crumbling public schools, senior citizens who have lost their pensions, a shrinking middle class – some politicians are taking the easy way out by focusing on undocumented immigrants.

Those politicians are being goaded by nativists, racists and brainwashed people who are confused in our culture of fear.

Their term of choice: “illegals.”

That shorthand term for “illegal immigrants” – which they use as a noun, making linguists cringe – is being used repeatedly by reactionary commentators and politicians in every venue available.

…If Ms. Rodriguez only knew then where we were headed.

Here is a video about the I Word from 2010 sponsored by Race Forward.


The campaign that featured the video above was the center piece of the Bill O’Reilly clip below.  The segment was run in 2012 during the Obama/Romney general election for President and we can compare the right wing priorities then and now.  O’Reilly was saying this is a left wing crazy-talk talking point because we were all trying to avoid talking about the economy.  This is ironic because in 2016, with a slow and steady economy under President Obama, it was still the favorite talking point of the Republican selection for their nominee.


Those of us who were witnesses to the election  of 2o16 have to remind everyone what it was about.  We have to continually remind people that Donald Trump’s linguistic slip-up not only demonstrates complete ignorance to geo-political realities, it is a foundation of how the man thinks and why his supporters voted for him.

“Illegals” is a slur.  People like Bill O’Reilly defend a very limited rhetorical space where it can be used with some cruel and patronizing legitimacy, but when used outside of those limitations we as a society need to acknowledge it for what it is.

And if you think this is some left-wing keyboard-slammer who is misguided and confused, please allow Rush Limbaugh conservative Rick from Los Angeles remind all of us how Trump was elected as the Republican nominee.  It was all about the immigrants in their candidates mind, whether they are U.S. Citizen children of undocumented parents or not.   Rick understood this was just another con from his party’s eventual nominee.   Turns out Rush did too, but he didn’t care because he knew Trump voters didn’t care about the barely-concealed rhetoric of hate was disingenuous or the policies he was selling were lies.  They wanted to vote for someone who was saying what they wanted to hear.

(Note:  it’s difficult to listen to this clip because as on-target Rick was about everything else at the time, he had no idea who was about to win the election.)

From the L.A. conservative caller Rick..

With all due respect, Rush, on Chuck Todd’s show, he specifically said, when asked the question, “You mean you’re going to rip the families apart?”

He said, “No, I’m not going to rip the families apart, they all have to go, even the U.S. citizen children.

He then got into the middle of the debate, and the argument between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, when Ted wanted legalization and Marco wanted citizenship as part of a comprehensive plan. He said that they were both wrong, that they were both being absurd, that they all had to go “or we don’t have a nation of laws.” Come on! You were watching the debates as well as the rest of us were. You know exactly what he said and you know exactly the way he ridiculed everybody on that stage.

Immigration policy is critical for Tea Party and Trump Republicans to win elections, even when many business conservatives need the cheap labor that lax immigration policies and enforcement often allow to inflate profits.  The solutions really are simple and would include serious penalties for those employers hiring undocumented immigrants.

But think about how that goes over behind closed Republican doors with it’s outsized influence from the business community.  Instead of Republican-lead solutions on immigration policy that would include heavy penalties on employers of undocumented immigrants, what the rest have to be subjected media talkers and political demagogues bending the language to sow resentment and fear of an already vulnerable group.

Occasionally, when used out of context, we get a glimpse of the truth behind the slur.   Being an “illegal” in Trump’s mind has nothing to do with our nation’s laws.  It makes one wonder what, then, all the fuss is about.


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