George Carlin once observed, “by and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth.” He may be giving us that wry head cock right now after the Associated Press has decided to recommend that newsrooms refrain from using the term “illegal immigrant.” Their use of the more precise term “illegal alien” vanished some time ago.
Ensuring that moral judgment does not bleed into news reporting is a worthy goal for all free press, but shaping words to fit politically correct molds is simply another form of bias. Scrapping the term “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant” in order to placate powerful lobbies surrenders the language to drive an agenda and interjects opinion into the news.
Journalistic guidelines dictate that disclosing a subject’s personal information -- including immigration status -- is not always integral to the story. But when it is, readers deserve clarity, not obfuscation.
Yet, many newspapers have begun referring to illegal aliens as “undocumented workers.” The problem with that term is that with a few keystrokes, the illegality -- the breaking of the law -- is magically erased. “Illegal” disappears and with it, so too does regard for the rule of law. The claim is made that using the term "illegal'" presumes guilt but newspapers seem fine ignoring guilt when reporting even on broad classes of aliens who brazenly self-identify as residing in the U.S. illegally.
Can’t have it both ways folks.
The addition of the word “undocumented” suggests that those who have violated U.S. immigration laws are simply inconvenienced by not having the proper papers. But many illegal aliens do have documentation – it just doesn’t happen to rightfully belong to them. Finally, the term “workers” implies that all are gainfully employed, which many are not. But for the record, the seven million illegal aliens who do work are employed illegally and occupying jobs that rightfully belong to Americans.
The alternative use of “undocumented immigrants” is just as empty. These aren’t immigrants and this isn’t immigration. America is suffering from a policy of chaos and a flood of 12 million lawbreakers. Swapping the term “alien” for “immigrant” when referring to those who have broken the law is offensive to many legal immigrants. The distinction between legal and illegal is important. Coming to the United States the right way is a badge of honor for most immigrants.
There is no getting around it. The term “illegal alien” is the most legally precise, descriptive term in the lexicon. It delineates between one of only two possible categories; one either has legal status to be on U.S. soil or one is residing here illegally. “Illegal” means prohibited by law. Yes, entry without inspection into the U.S. is prohibited. And “alien” is a term that refers to a person who is not a citizen of the country. The term is well defined in 8 U.S.C. Section 1101. It is used by legal professionals across the board including the United States Supreme Court. It’s ok to say “illegal alien.”
Use it, but use it correctly. Don’t say someone is an illegal alien without the facts. That’s unacceptable and you’ll wind up in court. If based on due diligence, you have reason to believe the subject of a story is an illegal alien because credible sources have indicated he/she may be, use “alleged” illegal alien. But when the facts prove it and the circumstances are obvious, don’t be coy.
For example, when referring to 500 people at a rally holding “Illegal and Proud of It” signs, your readers will appreciate you reporting it accurately as a crowd largely composed of illegal aliens. Don’t water down stories about amnesty legislation for illegal aliens with references to “undocumented workers.”
Because amnesty legislation isn’t about giving needed documents, it’s about changing the law to erase the laws that were broken.
Why go through the fuss of changing the term “illegal alien” anyways? Altered to even the most preposterous euphemism we all know what it means – a person is here when he/she is not supposed to be. Leave well enough alone and avoid the hollow substitutes because ultimately, it takes more effort to conceal the truth than to reveal it.
Bob Dane is Communications Director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).