It's not only unfair, it can be dangerous if it creates a racial stereotype that all Hispanics in the United States are viewed as "illegal" or lesser, the advocates behind Drop the I-Word say.
FBI statistics show hate crimes against Latinos made up 66% of the violence based on ethnicity in 2010, up from 45% in 2009. Marcelo Lucero, a 37-year-old Ecuadoran immigrant, became a victim of such a hate crime in 2008 when he was stabbed to death on Long Island by a group of teens who were quoted as saying, "Let's go find some Mexicans to f--- up."
Words matter and can help to form opinions. A national survey of non-Latinos last year by Latino Decisions and the National Hispanic Media Coalition found far more negative views of Latinos when they were described as "illegal" than when the "undocumented" label was applied.
And that explains why campaigns like Drop the I-Word target mass-media organizations that speak to millions of people. And why they're celebrating this week after The Associated Press, a news agency that supplies stories to newspapers, websites and organizations around the world, announced it is changing its policy.
The AP had considered "illegal immigrant" the best way to describe someone in a country without permission, but rewrote its stylebook in what it said was a broader effort to cut out labels. It will now tell users that " 'illegal' should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally."
The New York Times, the other main focus of Drop the I-Word advocates, is also reconsidering its language.
Other media outlets, including CNN, NBC News, The Huffington Post, ABC News/Univision, and Fox News Latino, already have a different lexicon.
CNN prefers the term "undocumented immigrant" when referring to an individual. The network doesn't use the terms "illegal" or "illegals" as nouns but considers it fine to use the term "illegal immigration" to discuss the issue.
Whether or not language in this instance will lead to social change, of course, remains to be seen. One advocacy group, Americans for Legal Immigration, said it would "compensate" for the AP's change by now using "illegal invaders" instead of "illegal immigrants" in its releases -- an indication perhaps that the issue of immigration remains contentious in the United States, the world's top destination for immigrants and where 13% of us were born outside the country.