No human is illegal

 Jose Antonio Vargas at TEDxMidAtlantic in 2012 (Photo: TEDxMidAtlantic)

Jose Antonio Vargas at TEDxMidAtlantic in 2012 (Photo: TEDxMidAtlantic)

After five years of working as a journalist for the Washington Post, The New Yorker and the San Fransisco Chronicle, Jose Antonio Vargas worked on the biggest story of his life: “coming out” as an undocumented immigrant.

At age 16, Vargas found out that the green card he’d been given as a child was fake, he says at TEDxMidAtlantic. After that, everything in his life changed. Something he had no control of — being brought to the U.S. without proper papers — loomed over him, he says, After becoming a reporter, working in D.C., paying taxes and grappling with his immigration status, he decided to reveal his status in an essay called “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant” for The New York Times Magazine.

Since then, Vargas has fought for immigration reform and against the term “illegal immigrant,” which was eventually from the AP Stylebook three years after his essay was published. In a blog post about the decision by Director of Media Relations Paul Colford, AP’s executive editor Kathleen Carroll revealed the news: “The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term ‘illegal immigrant’ or the use of ‘illegal’ to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that ‘illegal’ should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

Vargas agrees:

“It’s actually legally inaccurate to refer somebody as an illegal, because to be in this country without papers is a civil offense, not a criminal one,” he says.

“As I stand here right now, there are tens of thousands of students across America who are here without papers, and I would hate to think that they’re sitting in their classrooms listening to us talk about them and internalizing the word ‘illegal’ … It’s incredibly dehumanizing and pejorative and [so many connotations] come with it — negative, all of them. That we’re criminals. That we’re not supposed to be within even the block that you live in or the school that you go to. Actions are illegal — never people. Something is terribly wrong when we refer to people as ‘illegal.’”

To learn more, watch Vargas’s talk below:



A version of this post originally appeared on the TED Blog in 2014.

1 Comment

  1. AJ

    Unlawful is still Illegal, because illegal is also unlawful. Please be careful with any word juxtaposition or meaning indirection lest it be deemed as intentional misdirection.

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