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NY Times Bill Keller and the I-Word

Mural at CASA de Maryland community centerTwo Sundays ago, Bill Keller, journalist at the New York Times, wrote a column called, "The Good Newt" about the Republican candidates’handling of the immigration issue. In the second paragraph of the article, Keller writes,

"Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich each, in turn, tripped over the issue — Perry by letting illegals [emphasis on “illegals” is mine] in Texas pay lower, in-state college tuition; Romney for failing to fire a lawn care service that employed undocumented workers; and Gingrich for saying that not every family lacking legal status should be put in a boxcar and shipped to Mexico"


Later again, he writes,

"Rick Perry’s comparatively sympathetic view of illegals is the bipartisan norm in a state like Texas that has long absorbed Mexicans. But it does not play so well in Iowa..."

I couldn’t stop wincing. And we weren't the only ones who felt that Keller's use of language was dehumanizing. The New York Times received a number of responses via email and through twitter,  protesting Keller's use of I-word. Some of the responses included:

"I am bothered by your use of the word “illegals” in your recent column (“The Good Newt”)... “Illegal” is an adjective, not a noun."

"This is not simply a matter of grammatical correctness. Shortening “illegal immigrants” to “illegals” reduces human beings to a status label, and a morally loaded one at that. It reduces the essence of a person to an act of violation, an offense. When you use “illegals” as the object of a sentence it literally erases the human beings who the sentence is about and makes the grammatical object of the sentence an abstraction, a label of condemnation."

Earlier last week Bill Keller himself addressed the concern in a blog While he still defended his use of what he says was "shorthand," he looked for guidance with other NY Times writers, who cautioned against using "illegals." 

He writes at the end of his blog,

"Well, vigilant readers, the good news is, you seem to have gotten the style book updated. And I’ll resist that particular shorthand in the future."

Last year, the New York Immigration Coalition endorsed an ongoing campaign called, Drop the I-Word, a public education campaign aimed at eradicating the dehumanizing slur "illegals" from everyday use and public discourse.

Chalk one up for calling journalists and media organizations out for their use of “illegals,” and chalk one up to Bill Keller and the Times for updating their style book in response.



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