Immigrants protest 'illegal' label

Undocumented immigrants rally in protest of repeated public classification of them as "illegal." Videojournalist: Amanda Voisard (Aug. 20, 2012)

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A small group of immigrants gathered in Woodbury Monday to protest the use of the word "illegal" to describe those who have entered the United States without documentation.

"By saying illegal, they're assuming that we broke a criminal law," said Jackeline Saavedra, 27, of Bay Shore, a Touro Law Center student who identified herself as undocumented. "Not everybody enters illegally."

Coordinators said they prefer the phrase "undocumented immigrant."

Osman Canales, 23, an immigrant rights advocate in Huntington who organized the protest, said using the word "illegal" criminalizes a whole community. "It's a racist word against our community, so we're just here to raise awareness," he said.

The protest mirrored a larger effort nationwide to push media outlets and people in general to stop using the word "illegal" when referring to immigrants.

The "Drop The I-Word" campaign was organized by The Applied Research Center, a New York City-based racial justice think tank. Its goal, according to its news website, Colorlines.com, is to "eradicate the slur 'illegals' from everyday use and public discourse."

Campaign coordinator Monica Novoa said that in two years, 14,000 people have signed the group's pledge.

"Using a phrase like 'illegal aliens' or 'illegals' . . . reinforces the notion that you could treat another individual as less than a human being," said Alina Das, assistant professor of clinical law at New York University. "One action -- whether it's a crime -- shouldn't be used to define a whole group of people or one individual."

But Gallya Lahav, associate professor of political science at Stony Brook University, said the term "undocumented" has flaws.

"It's a politically correct way of saying illegal," she said. "What you're also talking about in proper form are the real undocumented -- asylum seekers -- people who are fleeing for threats of their life or freedom."

Still, the word "illegal" makes Elias Llivicura, 18, who described himself as undocumented, feel "uncomfortable."

"We also have feelings too," said Llivicura, of Bellport, who came to Long Island from Ecuador at age 8. "It makes me feel like I'm different from everybody else," he said. "It makes me feel like really bad inside."

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