The Use of “Illegal” in Academia: An Unscholarly Approach

It seemed like yesterday when I arrived in London ready to begin the academic year in a weather that was surprisingly warmer than I expected. I was eager to develop the ability to look at an issue so personal to me in a new way so that I could contribute to an intelligent debate about migration. I was hungry for facts, theories, philosophical and legal frameworks to help steer a conversation in a more meaningful and productive way.

I had gotten tired of the pervasive rhetoric that plagues most public debates, especially those we have seen on immigration policy in the United States and United Kingdom. I had shared my personal story of deportation over year ago hoping to convince others to get past the black and white view of immigrants lacking a legal status; one in which you are either judged as an illegal that deserved to be expelled from a country or deemed a traitor who had abandoned her country of citizenship. However, articles that would include my personal account were bombarded with hundreds of comments like those below that in some shape or form vilified us:

‘…Most people here in the US see you ‘as a problem’ and you’re ‘stigmatized’. You’re the illegal alien. Your parents had no respect for our laws and borders and they and you are resented for that here’ –UT San Diego reader (September 15, 2013)

‘…Although the humanistic factor never dies… we should care less for those that decided to flee our country [Mexico] and believed they could live outside the laws of such countries that deports them… for breaking the law’. (translated from Spanish) – Frontera (September 6, 2013)

‘…as far as you and your family goes ,you got what was coming to you. your family did not know this could happen when your parents willingly broke the law by overstaying their visa ,or crossing the border illegaly? didnt your parents know that maybe someday you had to go back to mexico because they condemn to a life in the shadows by dragging you with them to commit an illegal act?…’ – Colorlines reader (August 14, 2013)

‘The reason these people were deported was because they have committed crimes. They weren’t picked up off the streets and deported because they were here illegally. Currently, illegals can only be deported from our jails if they have committed three crimes’. – New York Times reader (May 8, 2013)

‘Is the United States……NUTS……????????? Stop this nonsense & please [call] them illegals, not undocumented. They broke a law & should not be rewarded. There are lots of people waiting in line legally that deserve the right to come to the US’. – New York Times reader (May 8, 2013)

‘…speaking as a liberal progressive these deportees need to stay put, no second chance. There are far too many other people in other parts of the world that have been waiting for a green card for years. They should take priority over a deported illegal’. – New York Times reader (May 8, 2013)

‘My sympathy is limited by the fact that these people were deported because they were in the country illegally. They should get in line with the millions of others that are waiting and hoping, following the legal path’. HuffingtonPost reader (April 24, 213)

‘The USA, if it is a sovereign nation, chooses who to allow in, when, and how many. The illegal aliens do not get to decide these things, though that is the way it appears to have been working since the seventies’. – AlterNet Reader (September 9, 2012)

Drop the I-word
Credit: Drop the I-word campaign

I began to get used to the negative views, even anticipating comments as expressed by most individuals who rarely engaged in an open dialogue about how someone like me could find herself in circumstances of “illegality.” Often times, the other side of the story is overlooked, that which involves systems, including economical, social, and political frameworks that also create situations of “illegality” for millions. Does critical thinking on this matter not call upon us to question if such laws embody the principles of fairness and dignity which have been deemed as the foundation of most liberal democracies? This is what I expected entering into the academic setting, and anticipated a change on how immigrants are talked about.

Surprisingly, the academia is not immune to the biases of those that lack an in-depth understanding of the issue. Particularly here in London, I often hear a professor in class or a researcher in a public lecture use the word illegal. In completing the readings I am assigned in my courses, I discover that the most common used label used by scholars to describe the experience and conditions of undocumented immigrants is illegal. I find it quite odd to witness the use of this term, especially when the objective of these “scholarly” debates is to humanize the experience of migrant communities.

Despite the polarized debate about immigration in the United States, I am thankful for advocacy groups that demand for a shifting view of migrants as seen in the “Drop the I-word” campaigns. Their success has reached tangible results with media publications like the Associated Press dropping the use of the illegal immigrant label recognizing its lack of objectivity. This year, the campaign also reached the academic arena, including the UCLA and UC Berkeley campuses when their student governments passed a resolution to ban the use of the term they declared to be ‘racially derogatory, offensive and unfair’. To what extent will this translate to scholars adopting this position? Will academia oppose such efforts and view them as too liberal?

The Ryerson University’s Centre for Immigration and Settlement recently released a report which also calls for a responsible approach to describing undocumented migrants. The report argues for the adoption of a new term striking a middle ground in the debate: ‘Illegalized immigrant’. The merit of the argument is that it acknowledges the power of language, on how it is used as a tool to elicit emotional responses from individuals which then translate into behavior in communities and institutions that engage with immigrants. The position of these scholars on the use of the term ‘illegal’ to label a group of people is that it is de-humanizing and the consequences can be evidenced in the hostile environments they live in. There is also recognition of a process of “illegalization” by factors like stringent immigration policies that play a role in the legal status of migrants. As someone who lived most of her life without documentation, I agree.

In a world that has constantly changed territorial boundaries and one that will continue to experience an inevitable increase in human mobility, it is only for the un-critical minds that resort to the use of the term illegal. For those seeking to research and further their understanding of immigrants from a human rights context, it becomes our responsibility to use terminology that is sensitive to the communities being studied. Language that blames migrants for the legal status they hold has no place in academia. Even at the international level, there is recognition of this principle and human rights law instruments coming from international bodies like the United Nations refer to migrants lacking a legal status as “irregular”, NOT “illegal”. If we hope to change the conversation around migration, this change needs to happen in our day-to-day conversations with others, in the written scholarly work we publish, and even in the comments we leave at the end of an article.

Click here for more on the “Drop the I-word” campaign:

Some organizations in UK and Europe involved in similar efforts:

No One is Illegal – UK

No One Is Illegal Network – Sweden

Published in Latina Lista on December 10, 2013

Click here for version of blog post in Spanish.

Update on 22-Feb-14: Spanish translation of article available

Yours Truly, A Tijuana Dreamer

I’ll like to post a version of an email I sent to my friends this weekend, sharing with them (and now with you) something I am very excited about: Having my story being featured in the book Dreamers.

Dear friends,

Some of you I have known for a long time, others I have met recently since my “transition” to Mexico. More than three years have passed since, but it seems and feels as if it was yesterday when I lived in my Los Angeles hometown.

Today I was remembering my first week in Tijuana, in particular, the day I attempted to reconnect with my life in the U.S. I was on a mission to find a place with Internet access. After walking many blocks in downtown TJ, feeling disoriented, confused, and lost… there it was, a cyber café near Revolución Blvd. I reserved my spot, logged into a computer and my email account, and I started typing emails to all my friends to tell them about what had just happened – an abrupt deportation that had left me stranded in my native country I had not seen for almost 20 years.

Thanks to technology, we have been able to keep in touch. Some with more frequency, others with an occasional email or a status update in the social media world. But regardless of whether communication is constant or not, all of you have a special place in my heart and thoughts.

What has happened since? So much that I am not able to cover in one email but there is one thing I wanted to take the time to share with you. My experience of deportation is beginning to shift from being a personal tragedy to a story of the collective immigrant experience; a community in the U.S. that that continues to push and advocate for immigration reform. Instead of being one more statistic in the “Out-of-sight, Out-of-mind” list, I have the opportunity and  responsibility to be a voice for so many that may lack the resources or support to be able to share their stories of struggle.

Since I made my story public last year, I have been blessed to have many that are interested in listening and understanding the complexity and dysfunction of an immigration system that led to my forced removal. As a result, my experience will be shared to a wider audience as it is featured in the book Dreamers (Spanish Edition) by Mexican journalist Eileen Truax which will be available to the public this month, in the U.S. and Mexico.

Dreamers is a book that helps us understand the state of U.S. immigration through the experiences and voices of young undocumented immigrants. I am humbled to be included among eight courageous Dreamers who have redefined what it is to be undocumented and have led a successful movement that we hope will translate into policy changes.

Dreamers by Eileen Truax released May 2013

Eileen Truax will be presenting the book at La Feria del Libro (Spanish Book Fair) Los Angeles at the LA Convention Center, next Saturday, May 18, 2013.

Currently, the book is only in Spanish but with a successful launch, we hope that a translation will be made available so that our stories can be shared with the English speaking community.

A border might prevent me from being there physically, but I will be there in spirit. I would love to hear from you if you happen to have an opportunity to attend.

I conclude with a note of gratitude because it is very clear to me that without you, my story would have remained a tragic one. Whether it was in the form of a call/email of encouragement, shelter and food, a visit to Tijuana, a letter of recommendation, or sharing my story with others, it all made the difference in turning it into one that is now filled with renewed hopes and dreams.


A Tijuana Dreamer

Published in La Prensa San Diego on May 13, 2013 I was a DREAMer before it was cool — and I got deported

This blog post first appeared on titled A Personal Look at the First Generation of Undocumented Youth– ‘I was a DREAMer before the DREAM Act’.

It is my attempt to reflect back on the challenges I faced as an undocumented student in the U.S. Although the experience and struggles are by no means “cool”, the new generation of DREAMers have made this movement what it is today: a force to be reckoned with.

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by NANCY LANDA on MAY 6, 2013 in CULTURA

The immigrant rights movement has reached one of the most important milestones of the last two decades. Finally, politicians are responding to the demands of advocates asking to reform a broken immigration system that has marginalized millions of undocumented immigrants.

We see this in the form of Senate Bill 744 proposed by the Bipartisan Senate Coalition referred to as the “Gang-of-Eight” which is by far the most comprehensive piece of legislation we have seen in recent years. Such progress is due to the masses of brave DREAMers (undocumented youth) who came out of the shadows to declare their legal status for the purpose of telling their stories to the American public.

Senate Bill 744 incorporates many of the provisions outlined in the most recent legislative proposal known as the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) with added flexibility in the requirements for legal permanent residency by removing the age cap of 30 for applicants. DREAMers residing in the U.S., who entered the country younger than 16 years of age and prior to December 2011, would be eligible for Legal Permanent Residency (LPR).

This proposal is now inclusive of the elder generation of undocumented youth, those of us who came prior to the DREAMer movement. We were not called DREAMErs as the only known label used to identify us was illegal alien. That is because the term DREAMer did not exist until after 2001 when the first version of the DREAM Act bill was introduced in Congress.

To some extent, the illegal alien identifier was accurate in describing my experience growing up during my high school and early college years, which was one of alienation. Intrinsically, I knew that in order to survive and protect myself from danger, I had to hide the fact that I was undocumented. This seemed rather challenging when you live in neighborhoods and attend classes at a school where you feel and look like an outsider. Not to mention facing a communication barrier as you are trying to learn a new language. If my looks were not enough to alienate me, my foreign accent did the job. Consequently, as a young adult I felt so different from everyone. I also knew that my life would be about surviving in a society that did not care to recognize me as a full human being.

It was clear to me that the fight for survival was one I had to do on my own. During my high school years, I did not have any friends, mentors, or counselors to assist me as I was faced with sorting my life after graduation. How would I explain to someone that I could not apply for jobs, internships, financial aid, etc.? My parents provided the stability I needed at home, but when it came to navigating the outside English-speaking world and the educational system, I knew I had no one but myself.

Although I was an honors student and belonged to the top three percent of my graduating class, my future was uncertain due to my undocumented status. Could my way out of such predicament be an education? That was a question I did not know answer at the moment, but college seemed like my only alternative. I saw how much my parents struggled to climb the economic ladder with a 6th grade level education. So, if I wanted to have a different outcome, I had to do something different. My plan for self-sufficiency included pursuing a college degree. Thankfully, the hard work in high school paid off as I was accepted to California State University,Northridge (CSUN). I began attending college in the fall of 1998.

I get asked the following frequently – “If you were undocumented, how were you able to attend college?” My answer to this day is a simple one – “Nothing stopped me from applying”. But it is a valid question to ask because the outcome could have been very different if Proposition 187 had been upheld. I started college only four years after Proposition 187 (known as Save Our State Initiative) was approved by voters in California. Such measure was intended to create a state-run citizenship screening system to deny undocumented immigrants access to public services including healthcare and public education. It’s principals are not very different from laws that have recently been upheld in states like Arizona. Although the “Save Our State” measure was still facing legal battles in court, a restraining order preventing this law from being in place allowed many like me to stay in school. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals eventually repealed this measure and it was effectively killed in 1999.

Although such an anti-immigrant measure did not come into fruition in California, its aftermath was still felt. Such political climate furthered cemented the feeling of marginalization I felt growing up. I was simply a voiceless illegal alien that should not be in this country. I had no say, no vote, and no rights. That’s the message I got from those that wanted to criminalize my family and those like me. It was then that I decided to continue to stay “under the radar” and did as much as possible to appear a normal college student. On the other hand, this also fueled my desire to rise above my legal status. I wanted to be able to make it through college regardless of all the obstacles that were in front of me.

During my college years, I was living in the neighborhood of what is now called South Los Angeles which is 30 miles away from CSUN. Since California had also banned licenses for undocumented immigrants in 1994, driving was not an option for me. I resorted to making a four-hour daily trip to arrive at my college campus, which included a journey of three buses and a metro ride. This meant that after a full day of school and extra-curricular activities, I would return home at the late hours of the night. A 10 pm arrival was not too rare.

Breaking through the isolation became a second challenge to tackle. Thankfully, being on my own only lasted through the completion of my freshman year. I realized that somehow I needed to feel part of a community and began my involvement when I joined a student organization focused on volunteer work. I started to feel at home for the first time in my life in the U.S. Volunteering for the American Diabetes Association, AIDS Walk, Habitat for Humanity and many other non-profit organizations gave me an avenue to make a difference in others. This in turned helped me grow as a student leader and it encouraged me to be civically engaged on campus. It was here where I began to meet other students who were also undocumented. We created a type of camaraderie that served as a support system, but it was more on a one-on-one basis rather than in an organized way. It still felt we were the minority on campus and that in order to get through college, we needed to keep our status hidden to the outside world.

My last year at CSUN was life-changing as I stepped into the ultimate student leadership role, becoming the first Latina President of Associated Students– the university student government. The public fights we took on were primarily to protect college affordability given the proposed tuition fee increases by the Governor Schwarzenegger’s administration which continued to slash public funding for higher education in the midst of a state budget crisis. I knew this was an important battle, not only because it would impact all my college student constituents but also the at-risk students which included undocumented immigrants. But hiding my immigration status continued to be my modus operandi, especially in a more visible leadership role. Only friends in my closest circles knew about my legal predicament. Finally, in 2004, I was reaching the improbable finish line, becoming the first college graduate in my family.

I believe that my personal journey resembles that of First Generation DREAMers, as I would like to call us. Being undocumented was the cross each of us had to carry on our own. Some of us were lucky to have found a mentor or friend that understood our circumstances and encouraged us to continue, especially in challenging times when one is about to give up all hope.

Has anything changed in the last decade for the DREAMers? Not much. Lacking a comprehensive immigration reform policy, the struggles continue to be the same and perhaps even worse in states that have adopted anti-immigrant measures. However, somewhere in between, the newer generation of DREAMers became tired of being scapegoats and has done what their predecessors were afraid to do. They came out to the world as “Undocumented and Unafraid” demanding a change through a campaign that modeled other civil rights movements seen in American history. Now we are witnessing the rise of student groups on college campuses such as CSUNDREAMs to be Heard established to advocate for immigrant rights and create a support system for DREAMers.

The Undocumented and Unafraid movement has become an inspiration to me. It has taught me that in order to generate change at a mass scale, you have to be willing to put yourself on the line. Even as a deported DREAMer, coming out publically with my story of deportation has allowed me to be part of this movement which is reshaping the conversation on immigration. Most importantly, it has redefined the immigrant community itself. Being Undocumented is no longer something to be ashamed or afraid of.

Our stories could make the difference in passing legislation for DREAMersand their families in the U.S. as well as for those of us residing on the other side of the border.

Nancy Landa is a deported honors graduate and former student president of California State University, Northridge (CSUN.) Nancy has lived in Tijuana since her deportation in 2009 and has shared her story to highlight the need for comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. You can follow Nancy on Facebook, Twitter or her blog at This blog post first appeared on