The presidential election is igniting once again the immigration reform debate and, with it, the continuing argument on how to describe a community of more than 11 million people who live and work in the United States.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney used the phrase "undocumented illegals" in the second debate when describing what’s been dubbed as his "self-deportation" policy.  

The New York Times and Associated Press have been criticized for defending their use of the term illegal immigrant. The New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan explains, “It is clear and accurate; it gets its job done in two words that are easily understood.” 

The Associated Press’ deputy managing editor for standards and production, Tom Kent, supports the use of illegal immigrant because “…such people are here in violation of the law. It’s simply a legal reality.”

Pulitzer prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who last year described himself as undocumented, disputes the use of illegal as “offensive and inaccurate because it criminalizes people rather than their actions.”

In June, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) hosted a panel to discuss the use of the term illegal immigrants in Nevada. 

Fatma Marouf, co-director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Nevada Boyd School of Law, was one of the guest panelists. 

"'Illegal' is an adjective that describes an act, not a person," she said. "We don't call people who cheat on their taxes 'illegal taxpayers.'"

Marouf continues, “Second, the term 'illegal immigrants' erroneously suggests that anyone in the United States without legal status is a criminal. Unlawful presence in the United States is not -- and never has been -- a crime.”

NAHJ continues to condemn the use of the term "illegal immigrants," "illegal aliens" and "illegals" in describing people who are in this country without proper documentation.

Those demeaning titles are not only inaccurate and disrespectful, but a propaganda tool used to dehumanize a group of people and instill fear in the general population in order to establish policy.

It is easy to blame a group of vulnerable people for the social and economic ills that plague a nation.

The fear propaganda gives birth to ignorant armed militias who proudly vow “they'll take matters into their own hands…” and hate crimes that often target victims for the color of their skin -- like the murder of fifth-generation American of Mexican descent, Juan Varela.

It’s easy for someone to preach from behind an office desk about the proper meaning of words like illegal immigrant. It is irresponsible for them to think that those decisions do not have consequences; sometimes violent.

NAHJ has historically asked the media to use the term undocumented immigrants or undocumented worker. To use any other term when describing this group is an attempt to discredit them, question their motives for being in this country and silence their voice from the controversial immigration debate.

Human beings are not illegal.

Actions are illegal.

Most of the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States are hard-working mothers, fathers, sons and daughters whose only crime is to achieve the American dream: a better life for themselves and their families.

Hugo Balta is President of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ).

Follow us on
Like us at