Public Service Bots

We built a Twitter bot that corrects people who say ‘illegal immigrant’

Fusion/Gabriella Penuela

For many years, it was considered socially acceptable by some to use the term “illegal immigrant” (or worse, “illegal alien”) to label people living in the United States without proper authorization.

But those days are over. In 2015, everyone from President Obama to actress Natalie Portman has gotten used to saying “undocumented immigrant” or “unauthorized immigrant” instead of the outdated and offensive phrase “illegal immigrant.” Publications like the Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press have asked their writers to not use the term “illegal immigrant” unless it is part of a quote. The Supreme Court has also opted for terms like “unauthorized aliens” and “unauthorized workers” because legal experts say that “illegal immigrant” is just not accurate.

So, in a modest effort to help America shed some of its historical baggage, we built a Twitter bot that replies to some of the people who tweet the words “illegal immigrant,” letting them know that in 2015, the preferred terms are “undocumented immigrant” or “unauthorized immigrant.” To avoid spamming people, the bot only runs once every ten minutes, and it never replies to the same user twice.

You can see our bot in action over at @DroptheIBot. It’s been running for several days, and has tweeted out more than 400 responses.

So far, the reactions to the bot have been fairly negative:

Although at least one user did seem to find it helpful:

And another said she appreciated the advice, but would rather get it from a human:

Why is it considered offensive to call people “illegal immigrants?”

Because, as journalist, filmmaker, and immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas told us in a recent interview, “Actions are illegal. People are not.” Vargas, who produced the 2013 film “Documented” about his life as an undocumented immigrant, explained that the term “illegal immigrant” is dehumanizing to people who came to the U.S. without proper paperwork.

“I am here illegally, but as a person I am not ‘illegal,'” he explained.

Vargas, who entered the country without proper authorization as a child, founded a group called Define American in 2011 and soon after became one of many organizations urging The Associated Press and other major news organizations to stop describing people as “illegal immigrants.”
“That term, ‘illegal immigrant,’ hangs in the air, permeates the conversation in social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and ends up in daily conversations at work, at school and at home,” Vargas told Fusion.

Rinku Sen, the publisher of Colorlines, which also launched the “Drop the I word” campaign in 2010, told us that the term “illegal immigrant” is often racially charged.

“The person to whom this word is applied is always of color, usually a Latino man,” Sen said. “The Irish and Russian undocumented immigrants I talk to are well aware that they need not fear being pegged with that word, and certainly never fear that someone will beat them to death while shouting the word at them, as happened to Marcelo Lucero,” said Sen, referring to a 37-year-old immigrant from Ecuador who was beaten to death in 2008 by a group of mostly white Long Island teenagers.

In a country where crimes like these happen routinely against undocumented immigrants, and where more than 11 million people are reportedly undocumented, it’s time to stop stigmatizing immigrants through our word choices.