You’ve probably heard about the controversy over at the New York Times concerning the use of the term “illegal immigrant.” If not, here’s a rundown, starting with an article from HuffPost Latino Voices:
“Jose Antonio Vargas may not have convinced the New York Times or the Associated Press to stop using the term “illegal immigrant,” but he’s restarted the conversation.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist-turned-activist has pushed for media to drop the term “illegal immigrant” since coming out as undocumented last year, arguing that the modifier is offensive and inaccurate because it criminalizes people rather than their actions. (Many immigration violations are civil rather than criminal offenses). In a speech to the Online News Association on Friday, Vargas said he’s now targeting two standard-setting news giants: the New York Times and the Associated Press.”
For the record, Being Latino doesn’t use the term “illegal immigrant” for the same considerations of accuracy and connotation.
After considering the matter, the New York Times‘s Public Editor Margaret Sullivan decided to defend the paper’s use of the term “illegal immigrant”:
“It is clear and accurate; it gets its job done in two words that are easily understood. The same cannot be said of the most frequently suggested alternatives – ‘unauthorized,’ ‘immigrants without legal status,’ ‘undocumented.’ …
Just as ‘illegal tenant’ in a real estate story (another phrase you could have seen in Times articles or headlines) is brief and descriptive, so is ‘illegal immigrant.’ In neither case is there an implication that those described that way necessarily have committed a crime, although in some cases they may have. The Times rightly forbids the expressions ‘illegals’ and ‘illegal aliens.’ “
Sullivan’s weak justification lured Univision into the fray, which fired on Sullivan’s explanation and all use of the term “illegal immigrant”:
“Here, at ABC/Univision, we wrote about how that term is dehumanizing to those it describes and how linguists find it technically inaccurate. But, those arguments seem to have fallen on deaf ears. One of the most fundamental reasons we don’t use ‘illegal immigrant’ is because the phrasing is because it is outdated.
Nearly half of Hispanic voters, who are U.S. citizens, find the term ‘illegal immigrant’ overtly offensive, according to an unvetted Fox News poll from earlier this year. …
In many newsrooms where Latinos have a seat at the table, the term ‘illegal immigrant’ has been dropped. NBC, which started NBC Latino this year, dropped the term. ABC, which is part of our new partnership with Univision, dropped the term. CNN, after making recent Latino hires, announced that they prefer to use ‘undocumented.’ The Miami Herald and the San Antonio Express-News, which both have a large Hispanic readership, have dropped the term. Even Fox News, a cable channel viewed by the public to be the most conservative network in a 2009 Pew survey, took a step in the same direction when it dropped illegal in favor of ‘undocumented’ on their Fox News Latino site.”
For its part, Being Latino prefers “undocumented” to “illegal,” because the term “undocumented” makes no judgement on the individual, only on their status in the United States. A person can do something that is illegal — like entering the country illegally, for instance — but a person can never be illegal in and of themselves.
As David Leopold, general counsel American Immigration Lawyers Association, explains:
“What it [the term 'illegal immigrant'] suggests is that a person, by virtue of being in the United States, just their presence in the United States, they’re committing some sort of crime. That’s not true. It is not a crime to be in the United States without proper immigration documentation, and in fact, the only people that could be prosecuted for being here without proper documentation are people who have been deported once and then re-entered.”
In the end, words do matter. So it’ll be interesting to see if a media giant as influential as the Times decides to come to its senses.