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

Natalie Portman presents the Oscar for Best Actor at the 84th Annual Academy Awards, February 26, 2012
Natalie Portman presents the Oscar for Best Actor at the 84th Annual Academy Awards, February 26, 2012
Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

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.”

It's not clear if the words were Portman's own or if she was reading someone else's words from the teleprompter, but either way, the word choice - as opposed to calling the character an "illegal immigrant" - has drawn attention, including from Univision.

Officially, the standard mainstream media term continues to be "illegal immigrant," as set forth in the AP Stylebook. But media outlets vary in the terms they use, with "illegal immigrant," not to mention "illegals," considered by many to be too politically charged. Some professional journalists’ groups have publicly embraced “undocumented,” including the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists.

A third term, "unauthorized," long used in academic and research circles, has seen more mainstream use and is favored by some as the most neutral.

It's hard to say what kind of weight is carried by use of "undocumented" at the Oscars, where there is a long history of political issues occasionally tricking into acceptance speeches, although not typically into the presenters' scripts. But the speech has been met with praise by immigrant advocates and others. Univision anchor Jorge Ramos (@jorgeramosnews) tweeted yesterday:

Natalie Portman used the right term "undocumented immigrant" not "illegal" at the Oscars. Words matter. Thanks Natalie