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

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

A student activist's t-shirt, December 2010
A student activist's t-shirt, December 2010
Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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:


    • Immigrant

    • Undocumented immigrant

    • Unauthorized immigrant

    • Immigrant without papers

    • Immigrants entering without inspection

    • Immigrant seeking status

    • Citizen child of undocumented immigrants

    • It is acceptable to use migrant or foreign national; when possible use a specific reference to nationality (e.g.: Briton, Cambodian, Canadian, Jamaican, Mexican, Pakistani).

Some professional journalists' groups favor "undocumented," including the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and also the Society of Professional Journalists, which adopted a resolution in September recommending that newsrooms abandon use of “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien.”

But there are many who object to "undocumented." In a post last year on this site, UCLA Chicano Studies professor and author Otto Santa Ana explained his objection to "undocumented," arguing the proper term should be "unauthorized," which he deemed more neutral. From the post:

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.”

Feedback, anyone? What should the correct term be?