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The Daily Tar Heel

Sticks and Stones: Let's erase the I-Word

In a globalized world in the midst of a social media revolution, the things we say have become increasingly impactful. Words may start as just that, but they may shape the way we think and soon the way we act.

What happens when the words we say turn into the things we do?

In June, Juan Varela, a Mexican-American man, was gunned down in Phoenix by another man whom witnesses say told Varela to “hurry up and go back to Mexico or you’re gonna die” before shooting him. Varela was a third-generation, native-born American.

The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that hate crimes against Latinos have increased 40 percent between 2003 and 2007. The center also reports a 48 percent jump in hate groups between 2000 and 2007, many now focusing on the “threat” of immigrants.

In 2009, The New York Times reported on the death of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorean immigrant murdered in Long Island, whose attackers admitted to participating in what they called “beaner-hopping”, a practice in which friends would gather to go “hunting for Hispanics.”

For Latinos, one word stands out the most these days: illegal.’s new campaign “Drop the I-Word” is aiming to eradicate its use altogether. The website notes a TVTrends report from 2010 stating that the word’s use in the media has quadrupled last year. But you don’t need a study to see how often the term is spouted. Turn on any news organization, right or left, and I guarantee you’ll hear the word within the hour.

Characterizing people not yet convicted of a crime as “illegal” is factually incorrect, dehumanizing and discriminatory. It is a charged term used to cast a group of people as dangerous and threatening. Just listen to the Glenn Becks of the world spew the term just before attaching “rapists” or “murderers” to the sentiment, as if to say, “once a criminal, always a criminal.”

Under federal law, crossing the border is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and up to six months in jail. Still, you must be convicted by a judge and a jury — not by Glenn Beck and his friends.

The use of the word “illegal” has become a racial epithet that has played a role in the significant increase in hate crimes against Latinos, yet it has become a household term. That may be because The Associated Press Stylebook recommends the use of the term in reporting.

But that doesn’t mean it’s right.

The Minnesota Daily, the University of Minnesota’s college newspaper, took a stand in 2006 that it would no longer use the term and would instead use “undocumented” worker or immigrant citing the negative framing of the term. The Daily Tar Heel has made similar commitments over the last few years to curb the usage of the term in its reporting as well.

When we choose to label people, we commit to branding them divisively as outsiders. This is more than about political correctness. It’s about respect for fellow human beings. No person is illegal.

We as a nation have consciously chosen to leave words behind that are ugly and hurtful: the N-word, the F-word, the C-word. Let’s commit to dropping the I-word. People’s lives are indeed at stake.

Ron Bilbao is a senior political science major from Miami, FL. E-mail him at

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