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

The 'undocumented' vs. 'illegal' debate continues

A sign that reads
A sign that reads "No human is illegal," San Francisco, July 2008
Photo by Steve Rhodes/Flickr (Creative Commons)

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.

In the first last week, readers' representative Deirdre Edgar responded in her column to a reader who inquired why one story used both "illegal" and "undocumented," stating that the newspaper uses both. Her response formed part of an opinion piece this weekend stating that the newspaper's style includes both "illegal immigrant" and "undocumented immigrant," though not "illegal alien."

Most mainstream news organizations use the style guidelines of the Associated Press, which favors "illegal immigrant" over "illegal alien." Here's what Edgar wrote last week:

The Times' Style and Usage Guide advocates the use of "illegal immigrants" when referring to "citizens of foreign countries who have come to the country with no passport, visa or other document to show that they are entitled to visit, work or live in the United States."

It continues: "The term 'undocumented immigrant' is acceptable as a synonym for 'illegal immigrant' under certain conditions, such as when a form of the word 'illegal' already appears in a sentence."

Those who argue against the use of "illegal" as a way to refer to immigrants say that while it may be illegal to reside in the United States without authorization, it's dehumanizing to refer to a person as illegal, among other things. Others still argue that undocumented is a euphemism that is no better, and that the proper term should be "unauthorized." And some, of course, prefer "illegal."

Readers, what do you think?