How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Is 'illegal' an 'uncomfortable truth' when used to describe immigrants?

CNN guest opinion essay yesterday titled "Why 'illegal immigrant' is a slur," written by Latino marketing guru Charles Garcia, generated thousands of comments and some high-profile rebuttals. Today CNN featured a counterpoint, an essay from syndicated comlumnist (and my former colleague) Ruben Navarrette Jr. titled "'Illegal immigrant' is the uncomfortable truth."

And as most things do that are written about the debate over "illegal" as used to describe immigrants in the U.S. without permission, the latter has already generated 2,000-plus comments. The debate over the term is long-running one, but it was revived last year when the Associated Press opted to continue using "illegal immigrant" in its new stylebook. Meanwhile, immigrant advocates, some professional journalists" organizations and others opt for "undocumented," and the term "unauthorized," often used in research and academia, has also gained favor.


Is 'illegal immigrant' a slur?

So states the title of a CNN guest opinion piece this morning, written by Latino marketing guru Charles Garcia. While making clear that he believes it is, Garcia points out something interesting about the language in the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision regarding SB 1070, Arizona's 2010 anti-illegal immigration law, one provision of which was upheld by the court.

The debate over the use of "illegal" in news media is a long-running one, with the Associated Press continuing to embrace "illegal immigrant" in its stylebook while immigrant advocates, some professional journalists' organizations and others opt for "undocumented." The term "unauthorized," often used in research and academia, has also gained favor. From the piece:

Last month's Supreme Court decision in the landmark Arizona immigration case was groundbreaking for what it omitted: the words "illegal immigrants" and "illegal aliens," except when quoting other sources. The court's nonjudgmental language established a humanistic approach to our current restructuring of immigration policy.

When you label someone an "illegal alien" or "illegal immigrant" or just plain "illegal," you are effectively saying the individual, as opposed to the actions the person has taken, is unlawful.

The terms imply the very existence of an unauthorized migrant in America is criminal.

Read more at:


An argument for 'unauthorized,' from a reader

Photo by stay sick/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Graffiti in Munich, Germany, Feb. 2008

What to call immigrants who don't have permission to be in the country? It's a long-running debate, and readers have been weighing in on it since a post last week highlighted one celebrity's use of the term "undocumented" during a presentation speech at the Oscars.

"Ohh the word Nazi's are out in force again," wrote a reader who identified as Hacim Obmed. The back-and-forth has been a familiar one, with some criticizing "undocumented," used as an alternative to "illegal," as a euphemism. I won't get into the arguments for or against either; some of the background is below. But perhaps for the first time on this site, one reader threw into the hat an argument for a third term, "unauthorized."

Here's an excerpt from what calwatch (not to be confused with the similar-sounding news organization) wrote:


'Undocumented' (vs. 'illegal') at the Oscars

Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Natalie Portman presents the Oscar for Best Actor at the 84th Annual Academy Awards, February 26, 2012

Might the use of the term "undocumented" during a speech at the Oscars on Sunday night signal a shift in how immigrants without permission to be in the U.S. are referred to?

The "undocumented" vs. "illegal" debate has been in the news again since the awards ceremony, during which actress Natalie Portman introduced the nominees for Best Actor. Among them was Demián Bichir, who earned his nomination for playing an immigrant gardener in "A Better Life." In the film, Bichir's central character aspires to have his own landscaping business so that he can better provide for his son, only to have his lack of legal status eventually thwart his ambitions.

The social justice magazine ColorLines, which last year launched a campaign called "Drop the I-Word," posted a clip from Portman's introduction speech yesterday. From her speech, addressed to Bichir as he sat in the audience: “As Carlos Galindo, an undocumented immigrant fighting to give his son the opportunities he never had, you made us face very true portrait of a human being no one had ever dared us to consider before.”


Highlights from today's AirTalk: Illegal, undocumented, or unauthorized?

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

A student activist's t-shirt, December 2010

Today's AirTalk with Larry Mantle on KPCC took on the debate (here's the audio) over what to call immigrants who live and work in the United States without permission. I provided some background while Larry fielded calls from listeners with their take on whether the correct term should be "illegal," "undocumented," or "unauthorized."

It's a debate that has existed in newsrooms for years, but has heated up recently. The Associated Press continues to use "illegal immigrant," clarifying earlier this month in its updated stylebook that while the AP doesn't condone the use of “illegal aliens,” “illegals” or “an illegal,” neither does it sanction the use of ”undocumented.”

The AP Stylebook is used as a guide by most mainstream media. But professional organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists have taken a position on the terms, eschewing "illegal" in favor of "undocumented." And the social-justice advocacy magazine ColorLines, which last year launched a "Drop the I-Word" campaign aimed at media, recently urged readers to contact the AP and suggest that "illegal immigrant" be dropped for the 2012 edition of the stylebook.