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Undocumented VS. Illegal: The debate heats up

This getty image caption reads,
This getty image caption reads, "U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent tracks illegal immigrants' footprints near a pond on January 19, 2011 in the Tohono O'odham Nation, Arizona." Should the AP style guide change using the term "illegal" to "undocumented," will the caption read differently?
John Moore/Getty Images

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For years, the mainstream media has struggled with how to refer to foreign nationals who live and work in this country without authorization.

Some news organizations use the word “illegals” or “illegal aliens” while others have settled on the less incendiary “undocumented.”

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) decided in September to eschew “illegals” in favor of “undocumented,” saying the former term is politically charged and offensive.

According to the resolution adopted by SPJ, “Only the court system, not reporters and editors, can decide when a person has committed an illegal act.” The most recent update to the Associated Press Style Book further clarifies the longtime new organization’s position on the issue. AP goes with the term “illegal immigrant,” instead of using “illegals,” “illegal alien” AND “undocumented.”


So what is an acceptable way to refer to an immigrant who is in this country without proper authorization? Is the term “illegals” inherently negative and politically charged? There are a lot of options on the table, including “undocumented immigrant,” “unauthorized immigrant” and the somewhat circuitous “immigrant entering without inspection.” What’s the best one?


Leslie Berestein-Rojas, KPCC immigration reporter and blogger, writes the Multi-American blog on KPCC dot org.