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Are DREAMers “undocumented” or “illegal”?

Photo By Jonathan Torgovnik / Getty Images

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 One of the most fundamental reasons we don’t use ‘illegal immigrant’ is because the phrasing is because it is outdated.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.

About Adriana Villavicencio

Dr. Adriana Villavicencio is the youngest child of Ecuadorian immigrants. She has moved 29 times in her life, taking her on a journey from California to Bangalore, India, and New York City, where she recently earned a Ph.D. in Education Leadership and works as a Research Associate at New York University. An avid traveler, Adriana has collected experiences in four different continents and 16 different countries. But as a former high school English teacher, some of her fondest memories are those of her brilliant and brilliantly funny students in Brooklyn and Oakland. Adriana has contributed to several publications including the Daily News and, and is a managing editor for the Journal of Equity in Education. She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in English Education at Columbia University, and currently serves on the board of Columbia’s Latino Alumni Association (LAACU). She enjoys scary movies with red vines, Sauvignon Blanc, and her Maltese dog, Napoleon.

To learn more about Adriana’s education consulting company, please visit

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.


  1. Jesse Olvera says:

    This isn’t new. Six years ago, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists launched a campaign to change the terms that news organizations use to refer to people who enter the country illegally. Rather than referring to them as “illegal immigrants.” What makes Jose Antonio Vargas’ campaign disingenuous is that Mr. Vargas is an “illegal immigrant,” “undocumented immigrant,” “foreign national who entered the U.S. illegally,” “undocumented foreign national,”… please choose a term that doesn’t offend you… from Antipolo, Philippines. In a June 2011 essay in The New York Times Magazine, Vargas wrote he is an “undocumented immigrant”. He states he revealed his status in order to promote dialogue about what he feels is a broken immigration system in the United States. Ironically, Mr. Vargas was recently pulled over by a state trooper for driving while wearing head phones. He did produce a Washington driver license after being pulled over. When the trooper ran the license, it showed the status of the license was canceled. It also indicated there may have been fraudulent activity associated with the license. That’s why it might have been canceled. That triggered the trooper to look into that further and contact ICE (U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement). An ICE official with knowledge of the situation wrote in an email that “Mr. Vargas was not arrested by ICE and no detainer was issued.” However, Mr. Vargas was arrested by the state patrol and put in jail for not having a valid driver license. Vargas has said that in the past, he altered documents in order to be eligible for work in the United States, and has since had driver licenses revoked after his story raised questions. Only in America can you be an undocumented foreign national, continue to break our laws, continue to reside in the U.S. and have the audacity to lecture us as to what words we should use and not use. Jose Antonio Vargas is a classic example of how flawed our immigration system is.

    Entering the United States illegally is a federal crime, as well as assisting those attempting to enter the United States. However, once in the country, illegal immigrants simply residing within the country are only in violation of civil laws.

    David Leopold’s, general counsel American Immigration Lawyers Association, explanation is misleading. Yes, undocumented foreign nationals who reside in the United States are in violation of civil laws. However, their initial illegal entry into the United States is a federal crime.

    Entering the country comes under a criminal statute. Under Title 8 Section 1325 of the U.S. Code, “Improper Entry by Alien,” any citizen of any country other than the United States who: Enters or attempts to enter the United States at any time or place other than as designated by immigration officers; or Eludes examination or inspection by immigration officers; or

    Attempts to enter or obtains entry to the United States by a willfully false or misleading representation or the willful concealment of a material fact; has committed a federal crime.

    For the record, as a U.S. citizen who happens to fall under the***”Hispanic/Latino”*** umbrella, I don’t find the term “Illegal Immigrant” offensive.

    *** “Hispanic/Latino”: NOT a race. Considered an ethnicity. NOT a monolithic “group.” Yes, the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau puts the “Hispanic/Latino” population at 16.7%. However, this figure includes non-citizens, including foreign nationals who are in the U.S. illegally. What people don’t take into account is that the U.S. Census asked your national origin, but it didn’t ask if you were a U.S. citizen. An estimated 12.3 million to 20 million illegal immigrants were counted as citizens. According to the Pew Hispanic Center report, in 2005, 56% of illegal immigrants were from Mexico; 22% were from other Latin American countries, primarily from Central America. 13% were from Asia; 6% were from Europe and Canada; and 3% were from Africa and the rest of the world. The 2010 U.S. Census Bureau reported the total “Hispanic/Latino” population as 50,477,594. The breakdown for this group by race is as follows: White/Caucasian 26,735,713… Black 1,243,471… American Indian and Alaska Native 685,150… Asian 209,128… Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander 58,437… Some other race 18,503,103… Two or more races 3,042,492. How many times have you heard that “Hispanics/Latinos” are the fastest growing minority in the U.S.? The truth is that currently, the U.S. Census Bureau identifies non-”Hispanic” Asians as the fastest-growing RACIAL group in the country, at a rate of 43% from 2000 to 2010. During that same period, the “Hispanic” population also grew at a 43% clip, the Census Bureau reported, but “Hispanic” is considered an ethnicity…NOT a race. Undocumented immigrants are also included in the U.S. Census 43% figure. In the world of politics, “Hispanics/Latios are divided into Democrats, Republicans, Independents and those who don’t or can’t participate in the political process.***

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