How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

The 'illegal' vs. 'undocumented' debate - what should it be?

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

A student activist's t-shirt, December 2010

The debate over the use of "illegal" in the media as a way to refer to immigrants living and working in the United States without legal authorization continues, most recently in the form of a direct appeal to the news organization whose style on the term is followed by most mainstream media.

In a recent style update, the Associated Press clarified that it did not sanction the use of "undocumented," which is frequently used. The AP clarified that it did not use "illegal alien," "an illegal," "illegals" or "undocumented," but that "living in the country without permission" was an acceptable variation.

In response, the magazine ColorLines, published by the social justice think tank the Applied Research Center, had a petition going last week to urge readers to contact the AP directly as the news organization sought input for its 2012 AP Stylebook. ColorLines, which last year launched a "Drop the I-Word" campaign, listed these as suggested terms on its petition:


The 'undocumented' vs. 'illegal' debate continues

Photo by Steve Rhodes/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A sign that reads "No human is illegal," San Francisco, July 2008

The media industry organization UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc. is lending itself to a campaign that urges media outlets to stop using "illegal" as a way of referring to immigrants.

The group has partnered with ColorLines, the social advocacy magazine that last year launched its "Drop the I-Word" campaign, and its parent company for a press briefing next week on covering immigration in the post-9/11 era and "the rise of the i-word slur in public discourse." The National Association of Hispanic Journalists, one of the three minority media industry groups which comprise UNITY, has long urged media outlets to refrain from the use of "illegals" and "illegal immigrants" in favor of "undocumented."

Are these efforts having any sway? For what it's worth, the debate has made mainstream media in Southern California twice this week, with the Los Angeles Times publishing two pieces on the debate during the past week in response to readers' questions.


'Non-consensual' immigration?!

The ongoing conversation over what to call immigrants who illegally arrived here or overstayed visas took a weird turn yesterday, when a Fox News host compared unauthorized immigration to unauthorized sex, as in rape.

Megyn Kelly made the rape comment during a segment on the use of "illegal" versus "undocumented," as suggested by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the subject of a recent opinion piece published on the website of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Talking Points Memo had the following transcript:

"You could say that a burglar is an unauthorized visitor. You know, you could say that a rapist is a non-consensual sex partner which, obviously, would be considered offensive to the victims of those crimes," Kelly said. "So how far could you take this?"

"What if there was a push by the criminal defense... bar to re-brand the use of the word rapist to nonconsensual sex partner?"


Illegal, undocumented, unauthorized? More debate over immigrants and AP style

Photo by stay sick/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Graffiti in Munich, Germany, Feb. 2008

Last month I wrote about the discussion provoked by a campaign organized by ColorLines, an online magazine covering issues related to racial justice, to discourage media use of "illegals" in reference to immigrants who arrived in this country illegally or overstayed visas.

Most mainstream media outlets follow Associated Press style, I pointed out then. And while "illegals" isn't deemed appropriate in the AP Stylebook, "illegal immigrant" is.

Last week, Marisa Treviño of Latina Lista took the next step: questioning the AP's judgment on its style, and that of outlets that go along with it. After being offended by the use of "illegal immigrant" used to describe CSU Fresno's accomplished student body president in a headline when his status was disclosed recently, she posted last Thursday:

...the AP, always looked upon as the guardian and ultimate authority on newspaper writing style, refuses to acknowledge that maybe a group other than itself can deem a particular term inappropriate for news usage -- especially a group that is offended by that term.

It wouldn't be so bad if only the AP used the term but because many in the industry follow its lead like sheep in a pack, they also use the term when referring to undocumented immigrants. In speaking with a few editors at different newspapers about their usage of the term, they have replied that they use it because it is "sanctioned" by the AP.


The conversation over 'illegals' and 'illegal' immigrants continues

Photo by stay sick/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Graffiti in Munich, Germany, Feb. 2008

The debate this week over using the term "illegals" to refer to immigrants who have entered the country or overstayed their visas illegally continues. And reading the comments beneath a series of posts on ColorLines, The American Prospect, The Washington Post and other sites has been fascinating, a bit like being a fly on the wall at a gathering where a heated debate is taking place among the guests.

Yesterday, I linked to a first-person essay by Rinku Sen, publisher of the online magazine ColorLines, titled “Why I Don’t Use the I-Word – in ANY Form.” ColorLines, which covers communities of color and often takes on the issue of race, has launched a campaign called “Drop the I-Word,” urging media outlets not to use the word “illegals” in reference to undocumented immigrants.

Over the years I've been witness to many a newsroom conversation over what to call people who are in the country illegally. There is illegal immigration, yes, but what to call the immigrants themselves? In general, mainstream media outlets tend to go with AP style, which is “illegal immigrants.” The terms “undocumented” and “unauthorized” are also used, if less commonly. Is "illegals" a term that is used disparagingly? Yes, but then what about "illegal immigrants?" An act can be illegal, but can a person be referred to as such? It's an old conversation, but one that is refreshing to see again as part of a nuanced public discussion.