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Immigration debate sparks debate about the 'i-word'

Immigrants in New York and throughout the country are all too familiar with the "i-word." The i-word isn't "immigrant," which is a word many people are comfortable enough identifying with on their way to obtaining legal citizenship. The i-word is "illegal," and with the media's increased attention to immigration reform, a concern on many people's minds is how the word "illegal" affects immigrant children's development.

Major news sources have been covering the Obama administration's Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals law. An article in the journal Color Lines points out how detrimental the media's use of the word "illegal" could be to the children protected by the new law.

For example, the article points out some of the headlines from major news sources. Fox News published "US launches new program allowing young illegal immigrants to stay." NPR wrote "Young Illegal Immigrants Seek To Avoid Deportation." And the New York Times offered this headline: "Illegal Immigrants Line Up by Thousands for Deportation Deferrals."

For non-immigrants who are out of touch with the various immigrant communities, maybe the use of "illegal" is innocent enough. But it really isn't. For many people, referring to a child as "illegal" is racially charged. Child immigrants who believe they are illegal, as opposed to the legal friends and classmates they see every day, are likely to experience negative psychological repercussions. The children begin to form an opinion of themselves that they are second-class citizens, when that simply isn't the case.

Children make sense of the i-word as you might expect. According to a study by the Center for American Progress, children equate immigration with being illegal, and they confuse the idea of immigration with the idea of police. They are saddened by what they think it means to be an immigrant. All of this, one might argue, is due in part to the widespread use of the word "illegal" in describing those young people the new law is designed to help.

Activists concerned about the well-being of immigrant children have started a campaign called Drop the I-Word. While immigration issues often require legal assistance from a professional, there are still better ways for us to talk about legal matters as they relate to children.

Source: Color Lines, "When It Comes to Children and the Immigration Debate, Words Matter," Monica Novoa, Aug. 31, 2012

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