First United Methodist bans term ‘illegal immigrant’ as ‘dehumanizing’
Immigration • Debate over the volatile issues begins with the language used.
Published: March 21, 2012 04:30PM
Updated: March 20, 2012 11:12PM
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Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo In this file photo from 2011, Melodia Gutierrez uses a loud speaker as she leads hundreds of opponents to immigration bills passed previously by the Utah Legislature.

The First United Methodist Church became the latest group making a push to eliminate using the term “illegal” when describing undocumented immigrants when its board passed a resolution to that effect.

The Rev. Eun-sang Lee said after the 2010 elections he saw terms like “anchor baby” and “illegal alien” used and decided it was time to focus attention on the words he believed were incorrect and offensive.

“The use of dehumanizing and demonizing language is more than just a matter of bad manners,” Lee said. “It also violates our faith communities’ understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The church’s formal policy — which began March 12 — will forbid members to use the word “illegal” when describing undocumented immigrants in sermons, church services, church bulletins or any of its publications.

Lee’s church joins the Catholic Church in steering away from that language.

Jean Hill, spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said it’s not an official policy of the church, but terms like “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien” haven’t been a part of written or verbal correspondence since 2003, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a pastoral letter explaining the plight and expected treatment of people migrating to the United States.

Hill said using the word “illegal” to describe a person is “inappropriate.”

“There is no such thing as an illegal human being,” Hill said.

She said Utah has been seen as a driver nationally in taking a more humane approach to undocumented immigrants. She said with business, religious and political leaders signing The Utah Compact — along with Gov. Gary Herbert signing the nation’s first state-based guest-worker program set to take effect next year — the use of controversial language needed to catch up with state actions.

And LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter said his faith has no official standing policy on the language either.

“While we don’t have an official policy, we have made it clear that everyone should be treated with respect,” Trotter said.

Any ban on the term “illegal” is a tough sell for some.

Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, said it came up with state Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, when he pitched HB300 — a failed attempt to replace the guest-worker law, HB116, this past legislative session.

The proposal was titled “Illegal Alien Related Amendments,” and Mortensen thought they might get flak for using the word. However, he said after discussion with the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, the supporters decided that “illegal alien” — which does appear in at least one place in Utah law — was the legally correct term.

He said those fighting over the terminology are using it for ulterior motives.

“It’s another way to define people who oppose illegal immigration as bigoted, racist or otherwise,” Mortensen said. “Because when you use the legally correct term, they don’t like it. It’s all gamesmanship and part of a public relations campaign.”

In the Immigration and Nationality Act, the word “alien” is used to describe anyone who is not a citizen or national of the United States. However, under Act 237, the terms used are “inadmissible aliens” or “deportable aliens” for those unauthorized to be in the country.

Monica Novoa, coordinator of the Drop the I-word Campaign, said the terms “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant” aren’t legally correct and said in immigration court, those terms never crop up.

“The judge doesn’t say, ‘Now I find you illegal,’ ” Novoa said. “It’s also judging someone before they’ve been judged. Calling folks illegal aliens is the equivalent of calling defendants at a trial ‘convicted criminals.’ ”

Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said he felt compelled to run a bill last session that would require newly-elected lawmakers to undergo cultural sensitivity training — including teaching them to avoid using terms like “illegal” to describe undocumented immigrants.

The bill ultimately failed in a committee hearing, but Romero said he thinks the tide is shifting on the use of charged language in Utah.

“I am encouraged,” Romero said. “This community should be sensitive to communities that are persecuted, and describing individuals with insensitive terms undermines our state’s history and culture.”

dmontero@sltrib.comTwitter: @davemontero

Style in the news media

The Associated Press says “illegal immigrant” is the correct term to describe a person who has entered a country illegally or who resides in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. The wire service style guide warns against using “alien.”

The Salt Lake Tribune is in discussions over whether it should lift its current ban on the term “illegal immigrant.”