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

Can a word fuel hate? More input on 'illegal' vs. 'undocumented'

Graffiti in Munich, Germany, February 2008
Graffiti in Munich, Germany, February 2008
Photo by stay sick/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Some say yes and some say no, but the words "illegal," "undocumented" and "unauthorized" have, at least, fueled a very heated discussion on this site since last week.

The debate over what to call immigrants who live and work in the United States without permission was the subject of a series of posts last week, and of a popular segment on KPCC's AirTalk with Larry Mantle. Over the holiday weekend, Multi-American readers continued to post their thoughts.

The illegal-undocumented debate is an old one in newsrooms, but here's some of the recent background: In 2004 the Associated Press, whose stylebook is followed by most mainstream media, made “illegal immigrant” its official term. There has been backlash since, including from organizations like the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists, both of which prefer “undocumented" over "illegal."

More recently, the social advocacy magazine ColorLines asked its readers to contact the AP to drop "illegal immigrant" for its upcoming 2012 stylebook as part of a “Drop the I-Word” campaign that it launched last year. Many media outlets by now have their own policies, including KPCC, which accepts both “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented immigrant,” but not “illegal alien” or “illegal” as an adverb or noun (neither of which are accepted by the AP, either).

Much of the conversation in the comments went beyond the terms, with readers going into their opinions about laws and policies. One reader posted that using "illegal" to describe a person "can fuel hate, whether you intend it or not." Others had no objection; one reader pointed out correctly that the word "alien" is found in federal statute.

Here are a few of the highlights from recent days. In response to someone who posted last week that “no human being is illegal,” Rusty Jones wrote:

Horsefeathers -- everyone who hears the term "illegal immigrant" understands that "illegal" describes the nature of their "immigration," not that they're a pathological criminal. And nobody thinks of a driver who doesn't have a driver's license as an "undocumented driver" but as somebody doing something very wrong.

Kyle de Beausset, a immigrant rights advocate who blogs on the Citizen Orange site, wrote in as kyledeb:

I am a migrant advocate who was born and raised in Guatemala of U.S. citizen parents. ?I like the term undocumented, because it's the popular movement term in the U.S. that undocumented folks themselves have adopted for how they like to be identified. If journalists must, though, I think using the word unauthorized is acceptable. The word 'illegal' is not only dehumanizing, selectively applied, and potentially racist, it's also just legally inaccurate. No human being is illegal.

Robert Newport wrote about “illegal”:

The term is legally incorrect. In this country, one of our cornerstones is the rule of law with all being equal under the it. To achieve this ideal, we adopted the principal; innocent until found guilty by a jury of ones peers. Therefore, unless the namer truly believes that every single one of our eleven million undocumented workers have been before the bar and found guilty by a jury, referring to them as illegal, can be said to be an UnAmerican act. It can also be correctly understood as a racist act.

Michael Ray replied, disagreeing:

Racism? What race are you talking about? The term “illegal alien” is written into US immigration law. This group of people is defined by their unlawful actions, not their ethnicity; or if you prefer their alleged unlawful actions. I have no intention to hurt anyone feelings or to be offensive but it is a legal term. I would submit that trying to tell people how to express themselves is much more offensive and about as un-American as one can get. The 1st amendment was put in place for this very reason; to protect unpopular speech. I don’t see any ethnic slurs written so I still don’t know what racism you are writing about.

Magyart wrote simply:

If you fail to have a legal status, you are illegal. Race, religion, sex, or color has nothing to do with it.

The most recent comment came from Rev Sara, who wrote:

I volunteer taking calls for a hotline to assist families in crisis related to immigration, and someone called the other day just to complain that this humanitarian service should end because the immigrants we are trying to support are not human, and therefore should not receive humanitarian aid. The level of hate speech around this issue is shocking. Therefore we all need to be careful around our language on this issue.

Use of the word "illegal" to describe another human being can fuel hate, whether you intend it or not. I support using words like undocumented or unauthorized.