Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Highlights from today's AirTalk: Illegal, undocumented, or unauthorized?

A student activist's t-shirt, December 2010
A student activist's t-shirt, December 2010
Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Today's AirTalk with Larry Mantle on KPCC took on the debate (here's the audio) over what to call immigrants who live and work in the United States without permission. I provided some background while Larry fielded calls from listeners with their take on whether the correct term should be "illegal," "undocumented," or "unauthorized."

It's a debate that has existed in newsrooms for years, but has heated up recently. The Associated Press continues to use "illegal immigrant," clarifying earlier this month in its updated stylebook that while the AP doesn't condone the use of “illegal aliens,” “illegals” or “an illegal,” neither does it sanction the use of ”undocumented.”

The AP Stylebook is used as a guide by most mainstream media. But professional organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists have taken a position on the terms, eschewing "illegal" in favor of "undocumented." And the social-justice advocacy magazine ColorLines, which last year launched a "Drop the I-Word" campaign aimed at media, recently urged readers to contact the AP and suggest that "illegal immigrant" be dropped for the 2012 edition of the stylebook.

The AirTalk segment drew quite a few calls from listeners, including some who sided with the thinking that calling a person "illegal" is demeaning and who considered "undocumented" more appropriate. Others said they preferred what's deemed a more politically neutral alternative, "unauthorized." Others still said they don't see a problem with "illegal" if being in the U.S. without permission is against the law.

In the hours since the segment aired, more than 150 comments have been posted on the AirTalk segment page on KPCC's website. Here are just a few:

Ali Alexander wrote:

Illegal aliens are not "undocumented".  Unfortunately, many of them HAVE documents--just not their own, but ones stolen or counterfeited.  Moreover, as advocates for illegal aliens like to point out, illegal immigration is a CIVIL matter with no guilt or innocence involved.  It is in fact up to the alien to prove that he has a right to be here, not up to the government to show he doesn't.


Art wrote:

simply:  not  having a piece of paper does not make anyone an illegal...were I to chose not to get an I.D. it would not make me an illegal human...just simply undocumented one.


Reggy wrote:


Alright, let's all agree to call them all jaycrossers. Then no one will really know what we are talking about and no one will have to feel inferior or belittled. Seriously, put your energy into changing the laws if you don't like the results. Dip a lemon slice in sugar syrup and you've still got a lemon slice, it's just a little sweeter. Personally I'd prefer an orange.

Guest wrote:

I think that regardless of what we choose to call immigrants that are here illegally, we need to remember that these are human beings. I am so sick of hearing racial slures and comments about illegal immigrants. If I were stuck in Mexico and lived a life of poverty I would do anything and everything in my power to get myself and my family into the US regardless of whether it was legal or not.

The people that are crossing the borders are living with a 'survival of the fittest' mentality. Maybe we should focus our attention on our lousy government that can't seem to come up with solutions to any problems. I am 24 years old and already have no faith in our government. Tragic.

Law student wrote:

People cannot be "illegal."  Acts are illegal.

Tom in West LA wrote:

The idea that immigration is somehow a relatively "neutral" problem -- like jaywalking --  is disingenuous -- in California we have  at least a 150 year history of strife and (yes) violence associated with immigration and there has often been a racial dimension to this issue -- hence sensitivity about the terms of reference for *this* issue -- as opposed to other forms of illegality -- is entirely appropriate -- we should not pretend that this is somehow neutral -- let the adversaries use highly charged language -- the press should be as neitral as possible and should not be bullied by adversaries...

Cristi wrote:

If all you know about a person is that they are in the US without permission, you do not know that they actually committed any legal infraction to get here. In fact, children brought here illegal do not have the requisite intent to be considered law breakers of any sort.  So, how can you call them "illegal"?  all you know, is that they are undocumented.

Legal Immigrant wrote:

As a former illegal immigrant who went through the laborious, years-long process to become a legal immigrant, I believe that changing the term to 'undocumented' is a purposeful softening of the reality of the situation and is wrong.  When I came here I knew that I was not in this country legally and the weight of this reality was an important motivation to fix the situation so I could live and work here without fear of being sent home.  This was MY decision to come here, and those who come over the border (by bus, train, plane, walk) know this as well. We all come here for the 'right' reasons, but changing the terminology doesn't make what we did more legal.  Those who try to change the wording are also trying to change the perception and are trying to force, through public pressure, the media to collaborate.Until the law is changed to make a provision for the concept of 'legal but undocumented' then illegal is the correct term.

And Sean wrote:

Can we just admit we use whichever term as a code word for Hispanic?
Most of the 'illegal' immigrants that I've known have been Irish or Filipino, but they're not really what we're talking about when we use these terms.
Another conversation about what label makes us feel good rather than dealing with a very complex issue about what's happening along our southern border.

What do you think the term should be? Keep the discussion going and post your thoughts below.

Audio of the AirTalk segment can be downloaded here.