How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'Out of status?' Rep. John Conyers on what to call undocumented immigrants in U.S. (Video)

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee set off a flurry of responses on Twitter with his suggestions about what to call immigrants who live in this country without permission.

Critics of the term "illegal immigrants" got a shot in the arm this morning when Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, said in his opening statement during a House of Representatives immigration reform hearing that "the people in this country are not illegal, they are out of status."

What to call immigrants who are in the United States without permission has generated a long-running debate in newsrooms and in the advocacy arena, but it was interesting to see it surface in a Congressional hearing. Here's Conyers' comment in context: 

“I hope no one uses the term ‘illegal immigrants’ here today. Our citizens are not...the people in this country are not illegal, they are out of status, they are new Americans that are immigrants, and I think that we can forge a path to citizenship that will be able to pass muster. We’ve got senatorial bipartisan support working very nicely thus far."

Conyers' remark has been making the rounds of Twitter, drawing support in some quarters, jeers in others. The Atlantic Wire has a collection of funny-critical tweets from non-supporters, i.e. "a pot dealer is an unlicensed pharmacist," "bank robbers are 'Unauthorized Withdrawers'" and the like. Another tweeter noted that President Obama used "illegal immigrants" in his speech last week (he did) when he announced his immigration reform plan in Las Vegas. 

A little background on the illegal-undocumented-unauthorized debate: "Illegal immigrant" is a term that the Associated Press has stood behind in its stylebook, despite clarifications in recent years noting that "illegal alien," "an illegal," and "illegals" isn't proper usage, but that "living in the country without permission" is an acceptable variation.

Meanwhile, professional media organizations such as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists have taken a stronger position, advocating for use of "undocumented" and arguing that "illegal" is too politicized a term. 

On the advocacy side, the social justice magazine ColorLines has been lobbying for mainstream media outlets to drop the use of "illegal" in a campaign dubbed "Drop the I-Word." Not that "undocumented" is favored by all, even those who deem "illegal" inappropriate. Some consider "undocumented" a euphemism; they argue that the more neutral "unauthorized," often found in academic research, works best.

We've asked the question in different words before, but feel free to share your thoughts: Do you agree with Rep. Conyers that Congress should drop "illegal immigrants" from the debate? Was Conyers' comment out of line? Chime in below.

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