NPR Latino USA anchor María Hinojosa told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes Sunday her opposition to the term “illegal immigrant” stemmed from a conversation with Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel years ago in which Wiesel said the term was part of the horrors he faced in his youth.
“If there is an authority, you should be it,” Hinojosa said she told Wiesel. “And he said, ‘María, don’t ever use the term ‘illegal immigrant.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because once you label a people ‘illegal,’ that is exactly what the Nazis did to Jews.’ You do not label a people ‘illegal.’ They have committed an illegal act. They are immigrants who crossed illegally. They are immigrants who crossed without papers. They are immigrants who crossed without permission. They are living in this country without permission. But they are not an illegal people.”
The use of the term resurfaced for debate this week, with undocumented journalist and immigration advocate Jose Antonio Vargas and New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan recently discussing the use of it in the press.
“I see no advantage for Times readers in a move away from the paper’s use of the phrase ‘illegal immigrant,’” Sullivan wrote in an Oct. 2 column. “It is clear and accurate; it gets its job done in two words that are easily understood. The same cannot be said of the most frequently suggested alternatives — ‘unauthorized,’ ‘immigrants without legal status,’ ‘undocumented.’”
Vargas, founder of the advocacy group Define American, reiterated his call Sunday for media outlets to stop using the term, saying the term ‘illegal’ underscores the media’s tendency to discuss the issue simplistically.
“We have so largely dehumanized this issue,” Vargas said. “And our job as journalists — and I’m speaking as somebody who’s been doing this for more than a decade — is really being more descriptive in the way we use this term.”
When Hayes brought up Sullivan’s point that “illegal” is a technical term while “undocumented” has its own connotation, Hinojosa asked if he knew someone who had broken the law.
“I don’t think I’ve known a single person who hasn’t broken the law,” Hayes answered, at which point Hinojosa offered up hypothetical examples of people who have broken traffic laws, or failed to pay child support, or have not paid taxes.
“That means that now your friends are an ‘illegal driver,’ an ‘illegal taxpayer’ and an ‘illegal father,’” Hinojosa suggested. “It is not a Latino issue. It is not an immigrant issue. Frankly, it’s not even an American issue. It’s a worldwide issue.”
Watch Hinojosa and Vargas’ discussion with Hayes, aired Sunday on MSNBC, below.