Undocumented or Illegal: Media Outlets Battle Over Immigration Terms

The term has become almost as controversial as the issue.

As states such as Alabama and Arizona continue to pursue strict immigration laws and groups such as the ACLU – and even the Obama administration – try just as quickly to block them, the issue of what to call people who reside in the United States without proper residency papers has taken on greater significance…especially among major media outlets.

Activist Jose Antonio Vargas called out The New York Times and The Associated Press during a speech last week at the 2012 Online News Association Conference and Awards Banquet in San Francisco for using the term “illegal immigrant.”

"The term dehumanizes and marginalizes the people it seeks to describe," said the former Washington Post reporter. "Think of it this way, in what other context do we call someone illegal?"

A Filipino immigrant, who in a New York Times magazine piece last year outed himself as an “undocumented immigrant,” argued that being in the country without proper identification is not a criminal offense, but a civil one.

Though it's a civil offense, the term “illegal immigrant” still remains commonplace in many newsrooms.

Vargas’ comments caught the attention of the Times’ editors, who on Monday posted a response on the paper’s website and spoke to the journalism think tank, The Poynter Institute.

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.

— Director of media relations for the Associated Press

“Obviously we know this is a sensitive area, one that we continue to struggle with,” wrote Phil Corbett, associate managing editor for standards at the Times. “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.”

“Proposed alternatives like ‘undocumented’ seem really to be euphemisms – as though this were just a bureaucratic mix-up that can easily be remedied,” Corbett added. “We avoid those euphemisms just as we avoid phrases that tend to cast a more pejorative light on immigrants.”

The public editor at the Times, Margaret Sullivan, also acknowledged that she has been approached by Vargas about changing the term in the paper.

The Associated Press Stylebook says that the term “illegal immigrant” is used to describe “those who has entered the country illegally or who resides in a country in violation of civil or criminal law.”

The stylebook, however, notes that acceptable variations of the term include living in the country without legal permission.

“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,” Paul Colford, director of media relations for the Associated Press, said in an email.

The term “illegal immigrant” originated in 1939 as a slur by the British to describe Jews entering Palestine without authorization after fleeing Nazi Germany, according to Charles Garcia, the CEO of Garcia Trujillo.

A survey of 122,000 articles published between 2000 and 2010 on the issue of immigration conducted by University of Memphis journalism professor Thomas Hrach found that that 59 percent of the stories used  the term "illegal immigrant," 29 percent used the words "illegal alien," and about eight percent used the term "undocumented immigrant."

A national Fox News Latino poll of likely Latino voters conducted under the direction of Latin Insights and released in March showed that almost half of respondents, or 46 percent, say the term "illegal immigrant" is offensive, while only a little over a third, or 35 percent, think the term is accurate. About 7 percent are neutral about the term.

“Calling people illegal or an illegal immigrant has become normalized even though it’s a term that’s inaccurate, it’s dehumanizing and it’s politically charged,” said Mónica Novoa, coordinator of the Drop the I-Word public campaign. “It’s anti-immigrant, anti-Latino language that’s harmful.”

Fox News Latino, along with other Latino-centered websites, choose to use the word undocumented immigrant.

"The word illegal is an accurate description for actions, but not individuals," former Fox News Latino Managing Editor Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush said earlier this year. "We don't use it to describe people who commit other crimes. We write about unlicensed drivers, for example, not illegal drivers."