Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

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

Graffiti in Munich, Germany, Feb. 2008
Graffiti in Munich, Germany, Feb. 2008
Photo by stay sick/Flickr (Creative Commons)

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.

She also quoted from an e-mail response to her query from an AP representative, which defended the news organization's use of "illegal immigrant" as "accurate and neutral for news stories."

Today in a second post, Treviño pointed out that the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the nation's largest association of Latino media professionals, disagrees with the use of "illegal immigrant." (NAHJ has also expressly condemned use of "illegals" and "illegal alien," and urges the use of "undocumented" over "illegal" when referring to immigrants.)

Treviño lauded the Miami Herald for using NAHJ guidelines. She also wrote:

We also feel that those newspapers who continue to use the term, over their readers' objections, are exhibiting a blatant disregard for their readers, especially Latino readers.

This blog adheres to the NAHJ guidelines, more or less. However, "undocumented" is a term that raises objections also, including from some who also criticize the use of "illegal."

While discussing election-year immigration rhetoric with me recently, UCLA Chicano Studies professor and author Otto Santa Ana surprised me by objecting to both terms.

"Undocumented is a partisan term, and so is illegal," Santa Ana said. "These two adjectives should be struck from journalism."

He explained: "When you say 'illegal immigrant,' you are labeling the individual as inherently bad. You do not call a pedestrian who jaywalks an illegal pedestrian. The kid who plays hooky is not an illegal student. On the other hand, to call someone 'undocumented' softpedals the serious issue of crossing the border without documents. It is a euphemism...It is perfectly appropriate for partisans to take on a position or another, but not for the media to characterize immigrants as illegal or undocumented."

Media outlets, he said, should opt for "unauthorized," which he deemed the most neutral.

Any feedback, readers?