Renewed Debate over Accuracy, Standards Related to 'Illegal Immigrant'

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Former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas, who identified himself as an “undocumented immigrant” last year in an essay for the New York Times,  is calling for the New York Times and the Associated Press to stop referring to people as “illegal immigrants.”

iMediaEthics has written several times about this terminology issue, including when Washington Post public editor at the time Andrew Alexander discussed the terms “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented immigrant” in 2010 and when the Society of Professional Journalists issued a 2011 resolution against using the phrases “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien.”  Linguist Otto Santa Ana told iMediaEthics previously that “illegal” and “undocumented” are partisan terminology.  Santa Ana also commented that the word “immigrant” may be misleading because “many of the people are not immigrating…they are migrating.”

Vargas announced Sept. 21 at the Online News Association Conference that he would “begin monitoring the use of the phrase ‘illegal immigrant’ in the media, with the goal of shifting the conversation around the issue,” according to ABC News.

Vargas is quoted as saying: “Right now, my two main targets, and I say that politely, are going to be The New York Times and the Associated Press.”  In a later interview with Politico, Vargas said, “This is not just about the big organizations like the AP and the New York Times, this is also about local papers and local TV stations and local radio.”

Vargas argued at the conference (video) that “the term dehumanized and marginalizes the people it seeks to describe.”  He added, according to the Huffington Post that “illegal immigrant” is “not only an inhumane term — it is a political term, it is an unfair term, it is an inaccurate term.”

In addition to Vargas’ call, according to ABC News, “a group of 24 scholars, led by” Jonathan Rosa called for the New York Times to change its standards and ban the term “illegal immigrant.”

Rosa and the other professors “endorsed” a letter that argued that “authorization should be understood primarily as a matter of political will rather than the individual choices of migrants themselves.” The letter, calling to “Drop the I-Word,” goes on:

“Simply replacing ‘illegal’ with another term will not eradicate the legal conflations, historical erasures, ethnolinguistic profiling, and acts of violence described above. Only an understanding of how language functions as social action will allow us to develop new terminology that challenges anti-immigration perspectives successfully.”

The New York Times

Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, who noted she doesn’t “make rulings on style for The Times,” argued that there is “no advantage for Times readers in a move away from the paper’s use of the phrase ‘illegal immigrant.'”

Sullivan wrote:

“It is clear and accurate; it gets its job done in two words that are easily understood. The same cannot be said of the most frequently suggested alternatives – ‘unauthorized,’ ‘immigrants without legal status,’ ‘undocumented.'”

Further, she compared the use of illegal in the phrase to its use in “illegal tenant” which she characterized as also “brief and descriptive” and without “an implication that those described that way necessarily have committed a crime.”

Separately, Sullivan reported that Times’ associate managing editor for standards Philip B. Corbett told Poynter that:

“We don’t reduce our coverage of this complicated issue to a single label…But in referring in general terms to the issue of people living in the United States without legal papers, we do think the phrases ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘illegal immigration’ are accurate, factual and as neutral as we can manage under the circumstances. It is, in fact, illegal to enter, live or work in this country without valid documents. “

Corbett argued that using “undocumented” instead of “illegal” is “euphemsm.”

The Associated Press

Associated Press spokesperson Paul Colford gave ABC News the AP’s “current editorial stance:”

“We do not insist that the term be stamped on everyone who’s here illegally. In fact, as in the case of a person who was brought here as a child without permission, the term can be misleading, since the person wasn’t a willing ‘immigrant’ at all. In such a case, we might simply state the situation: He doesn’t have legal permission to live in the United States, since his parents entered the country illegally (or without authorization).”

Further, Colford told Politico that

“‘Illegal immigrant’ had been the preferred term at AP. It ceased being the preferred term last year.

“Though the term is in the AP Stylebook because it reflects a legal reality, we believe there are alternatives. AP reporters understand that it’s not the only way to refer to individuals in a host of different circumstances.

“In the case of a person brought here as a child without permission, the term can be misleading, since the person wasn’t a willing ‘immigrant’ at all. In such a case, AP reporters might simply state the situation: He doesn’t have legal permission to live in the United States, since his parents entered the country illegally (or without authorization).”


In ABC News’ own report on Vargas’ call, it disclosed its position on the issue.

“The editorial policy here at ABC/Univision is to use ‘undocumented’ when referring to people in the country without authorization. Of our parent newsrooms, Univision uses the Spanish word for undocumented, ‘indocumentado,’ while ABC News typically uses ‘undocumented immigrant’ but hasn’t strictly adhered to that in the past.”

ABC News also quoted its senior vice president Jeffrey Schneider as saying: “Our goal and policy is to use the term undocumented immigrant or worker, but there have certainly been instances where we have fallen short of that standard.”


Arizona Daily Wildcat

University of Arizona’s “independent news organization,” The Arizona Daily Wildcat, which noted immigration is a daily issue locally, also weighed in on Vargas’ call for new standards related to immigration. The newspaper noted: “We generally prefer ‘undocumented'” but “our style manual does not dictate a particular term.”

After laying out Vargas’ argument, The Wildcat put the question out to readers: “Should we use the term illegal immigrant? Should we use undocumented? Something else entirely?”

iMediaEthics is writing to Santa Ana for further comment and will update with any response.

Check out all of iMediaEthics’ reports on immigration.  iM  i i
UPDATE: 10/17/2012 8:45 PM EST:  Santa Ana referred iMediaEthics to his “old but still relevant statement” from 2006 about the works “illegal” and “undocumented.”   He wrote to iMediaEthics:

“A 50/50 mix of these partisan political terms does not achieve what professional journalists often seek, a neutral or non-partisan presentation of the issues. To that end I propose using a non-partisan and certainly un-euphemistic ‘UNAUTHORIZED’ with references to undocumented immigrants.”

The 2006 column, “Journalists aren’t vigilantes, so why do they talk like them?” argued that :

“In today’s political context, journalists must realize two things. One, the word ‘illegal’ is a vigilante term.  Responsible news editors already exclude the word as a noun.  We don’t call a jaywalker an ‘illegal pedestrian.’ When people commit civic infractions — and that’s the legal offense of the  immigrants in question — it doesn’t make them ‘illegal.’ …

“Two, journalists whose  exclusively use the pejorative ‘illegal immigrants’ bolster a partisan stance.

“There’s nothing neutral about the term. Its criminal connotations are built into its semantics. The fourth estate’s responsibility to be unbiased outweighs stylistic criteria such as common use or concision. Only then can the media positively encourage democratic dialogue about one of the most pressing issues of 2006.”

CORRECTION - October 20, 2012 04:00 PM

The first sentence of the AP’s Colford’s comments to Politico should have been set off in block text. The formatting error was caused by a dropped quote mark.

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Renewed Debate over Accuracy, Standards Related to ‘Illegal Immigrant’ Term

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One Response

  1. D. Porter says:

    All of this is hand-wringing over a bunch of invaders is much ado about nothing…. just another PC BS distraction.Foreign nationals [aka aliens] who are in the country without permission [aka illegally] are ILLEGAL ALIENS. They aren’t “immigrants,” and they are hardly “undocumented.” They have plenty of documents….. all stolen or forged. I say build a wall and deport ’em all.

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