The "illegal" vs. "undocumented" debate is back on the mainstream radar again, this time in the New York Times after former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas challenged the Times and the Associated Press during a journalists' conference last week. Vargas went public with his status last year, revealing in a New York Times essay that he had been brought to the U.S. illegally as a child from the Philippines.
"I have a really personal message to deliver," Vargas said at the start of his speech. "The message is it's time we retire the word and the term 'illegal immigrant' in referring to people. It is not only an inhumane term -- it is a political term, it is an unfair term, it is an inaccurate term."
He later told reporters that "Right now, my two main targets, and I say that politely, are going to be The New York Times and the Associated Press."
The Associated Press, whose stylebook is used by most mainstream media organizations, has defended its use of "illegal" for years. Updated versions have been more nuanced, with the most recent one stating that "illegal immigrant" may be used to describe someone who “resides in a country in criminal or civil violation of immigration law.” Recent updates have not condoned use of "illegals" or "illegal aliens," and offered more detailed alternatives like "living in the country without legal permission." (Story continues after the poll.)
But the debate remains a common one in newsrooms. Media professionals' organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists and National Association of Hispanic Journalists have taken a stand against "illegal" and advocate the use of "undocumented." Many news organizations use "undocumented" on a regular basis, or use a combination of terms that include "illegal" as one option.
The Times responded to Vargas' comments today. There was an opinion piece in the NYT by public editor Margaret Sullivan, who wrote that Vargas approached her about the term by email. There was also an emailed comment published on Poynter.org from Phil Corbett, the Times' associate managing editor for standards.
Corbett referred to the use of ”illegal immigrants” and “illegal immigration” as "accurate, factual and as neutral as we can manage under the circumstances." He went on:
It is, in fact, illegal to enter, live or work in this country without valid documents. Some people worry that we are labeling immigrants as “criminals” — but we’re not. ”Illegal” is not a synonym for “criminal.” (One can even park “illegally,” though it’s not a criminal offense.)
Proposed alternatives like ”undocumented” seem really to be euphemisms – as though this were just a bureaucratic mix-up that can easily be remedied. Often those phrases seem deliberately chosen to try to soften or minimize the significance of the lack of legal status. We avoid those euphemisms just as we avoid phrases that tend to cast a more pejorative light on immigrants. For example, we steer clear of the shorthand “illegals” and also the word “aliens,” both of which we think have needlessly negative connotations.
The debate isn't about to end any time soon. According to the Poynter piece, some news organizations have stopped using "illegal." But many continue to follow the AP stylebook.
I've asked for readers' feedback on this before, but your input is always welcome. Do you agree with Corbett that "undocumented" is a euphemism? Do you agree with Vargas that "illegal" is too politically charged and ought to be retired? Take part in the poll above, or post your comments below.