Illegal or Undocumented Immigrant ? Which Term is Correct?

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"Undocumented or Illegal?" is the headline of a recent AJR article on the thorny topic of correct terminology. (Credit: AJR, screenshot)

iMediaEthics has previously written about journalists advising on what terminology to use for sensitive issues, including the legal status of individuals and any restrictions to or use of wheelchairs.

American Journalism Review published Dec. 17 a report by two graduate journalism students, Karen Carmichael and Rabiah Alicia Burks, about the use of the term “illegal immigrant” and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ efforts to influence the media terminology.

According to Carmichael and Burks, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists backed the effort to guide how news organizations label those who enter a country against the law.

“Rather than referring to them as ‘illegal immigrants,’ as the Associated Press Stylebook recommends, or the more loaded ‘illegal alien,’ NAHJ proposed using the term ‘undocumented immigrant’,” Carmichael and Burks explained.

The NAHJ reportedly issued a statement “condemning the use of the world ‘illegal’ in conjunction with immigrants” in 2006.

“It is much easier to dehumanize and to silence somebody when you’re calling them an illegal,” Ivan Roman, the NAHJ’s executive director, is quoted as saying. “When you don’t give credibility to people, and you don’t give respect to people, it is really easy for politicians to not take them into account when they are establishing policy.”

Carmichael and Burks explained that they tracked the use of “undocumented immigrant” and “illegal alien” on news database LexisNexis during the week of Oct. 10, 2010, and compared it with the frequency of the term’s usage in 2000.  They reported that the use of  “undocumented immigrants,” the “NAHJ’s preferred term,” has dropped, while the use of  “illegal alien” has increased.

The AP’s deputy standards editor, David Minthorn, explained why the AP selected “illegal immigrant” as the recommended terminology six years ago, Carmichael and Burks reported.

“Together the terms describe a person who resides in a country unlawfully by residency or citizenship requirements,” Minthorn reportedly said. “Alternatives like undocumented worker, illegal alien or illegals lack precision or may have negative connotations. Illegal immigrant, on the other hand, is accurate and neutral for news stories.”

Carmichael and Burks also cited their interviews with two linguists, Otto Santa Ana and Jennifer Sclafini.

Santa Ana, who helped found UCLA’s César Chávez Center for Chicana and Chicano Studies, recommended journalists use “unauthorized immigrant,” calling “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented immigrant” partisan terminology.

Sclaifini claimed that the word “alien” is “inherently negative,” where “immigrant” isn’t.

See Carmichael and Burks’ complete article on American Journalism Review here.

iMediaEthics has written to Santa Ana and NAHJ for further comment and will update with any response.

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Illegal or Undocumented Immigrant ? Which Term is Correct?

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