How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'Illegal' or 'undocumented?' People explain which term they use and why

Immigration Activists Demonstrate In Los Angeles

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

A student's t-shirt during a demonstration by immigrant student for an end to deportations on June 15, 2012 in Los Angeles, Calif.

The long-running debate over what term to use for people who are in the United States without permission has taken a few high-profile turns lately, with former Washington Post journalist-turned-activist Jose Antonio Vargas recently challenging the New York Times and the Associated Press to stop using "illegal." In turn, the news organizations have responded in defense and clarified why they use the term, along with others.

Timed to a related segment on KPCC's Take Two yesterday, the station's Public Insight Network sent out brief questionnaires to members in the network, asking people not only what term they use and why, but what personal experiences inform their decision to call these immigrants illegal, undocumented, or none of the above.

A majority chose "undocumented," although it's hardly a scientific sample. Most interesting was the rest of what they had to say. Here are excerpts from a few of their responses, with slight copyediting:

Jose Ovalle explained why he chose "other" in the questionnaire, saying he simple prefers "human being:"

I was brought here when I was 4 years old. All through out growing up, I've always been hesitant with girlfriends or friends to tell them my legal status. I always thought it was really embarrassing. But now getting in to this age of knowing myself and being aware of my surroundings I am proud to say I am from Mexico and proud to say I am not a legal citizen of USA. But let me get this straight, I want everyone to be equals. No more citizenship or anything. I want everyone to be citizens of earth.

A woman who didn't want her name used wrote about why she uses "illegal:"

I think illegals want to "sugar coat" their status, but I do understand other opinions.  How about "undocumented/illegal immigrants"?  Then everyone's happy.

Ignacio Castellanos uses "undocumented," explaining why: 

Because I'd been here since a was a kid and I was called illegal by the police all the time, and I didn't like it at all. I'd spent most all my life in jail and still without papers or any kind of papers from here or Mexico, and I'd called people in Mexico to help me get either papers from there, and I can't because I don't exist...does that make me illegal or undocumented? I don't have documents, so I'm an undocumented immigrant.

Kevin Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law and an immigration expert, explained why he uses "undocumented:"

I am a U.S. citizen by birth. I grew up in southern California -- first in the San Gabriel Valley and later in the South Bay -- and lived my entire life in communities with significant Mexican-American populations and people from a wide variety of immigration and citizenship statuses. I also worked at jobs in which undocumented immigrants from Mexico were also employed, sometimes in some of the most responsible positions in the workplace. 

The word "illegal" suggests that the individual somehow is illegal or some kind of criminal. In my experience, however, undocumented immigrants do not have a propensity for crime any different than other groups of people, including U.S. citizens. I also have a hard time understanding how people can somehow be "illegal."

Another reader who didn't give permission to use her name explained why she uses "undocumented:" 

I'm a non-Latino, politically liberal, Christian. I have bristled at the term "illegal alien," considering it extremely impersonal and judgmental. Jose Vargas' comments about the term "illegal" being damaging to individuals, especially children, struck a chord for me.  

As an 80-year-old, I remember when children born to an unmarried couple was referred to as a "bastard." Thankfully, that term is no longer used, and hopefully "illegal" referring to a person, will be discontinued.  

Carla Truax had an interesting take on why she uses "undocumented:"

Experience with terms used to describe mental illness. It's preferred to say "person with schizophrenia" instead of "schizophrenic," for example. It underscores that it is a person you're referring to first and foremost, not just one attribute of that person.

I'd prefer journalists said "people who have undocumented immigration status" or some term that puts people first.  

Viktor N wrote about why he prefers the term "illegal:"

The personal experiences that make me use that term are based on being a native Californian. Over the course of my 40 or so years, I've seen CA change radically. Many jobs that used to be done by citizens are now done illegally by illegal immigrants. This has affected my extended family who used to but no longer worked in construction. Our local neighborhood public school is so overwhelmed with children of illegal immigrants that have special needs (like learning English) that we have to go to great lengths to send our kids to a charter school in order to get the education they would have if illegal immigrants weren't here.

...Long story short, the term illegal feels exactly right. These are people who are living here who shouldn't be, and their presence creates a lot of problems. I certainly have nothing against them as individuals, but sadly, the term fits when it comes to describing their status and their sum total effect on society.

Power 106 radio host Wendy Carillo wrote about why she uses "undocumented:"

We live in a country founded by immigrants of all ethnicities, all of whom have experienced name-calling and discrimination. We know all the names used to describe Italians, Jews, Irish, Chinese, etc, were in bad form and discriminatory. Why do we fail to recognize that "illegal" is synonymously used to describe Latinos and is dehumanizing?

As a country, we need to stop criminalizing people who are a vital part of our economic well-being. Let's not kid ourselves, the term "illegal" is racially charged and needs to change.

And Ileanna Portillo explained how her preference for "undocumented" goes back to her upbringing:

I grew up in a very conservative area where the word "Illegal" was thrown around without ever saying "illegal immigrant" and never in a context of intelligent debate or discussion. It became a slur.

The questionaire didn't include "unauthorized," a term used by researchers and academics that some see as a more neutral, less political term. Which term do you think should be used, personally and by media? Is there even a correct answer? Share your thoughts below.

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