Phrase “illegal immigrant” offends law

CLARIFICATION: The following article is an opinion piece and does not reflect the views of SPJ, its membership or its Diversity Committee. The committee itself has taken no official initiative on this topic.

Mainstream journalists use the phrase “illegal immigrant” regularly when referring to Latinos who lack documents to be in this country. Yet, use of the phrase is inconsistent with a fundamental doctrine in our Constitution.

We celebrate the blessings of being American on the Fourth of July, and those blessings are guaranteed because of our Constitution.

One of the most basic of our constitutional rights is that everyone (including non-citizens) is innocent of any crime until proven guilty in a court of law. The only person who can properly say that someone is doing something illegally (e.g., is an “illegal alien”), is a judge; not a journalist or politician or anti-immigrant advocate.

In contrast to our common-law system of jurisprudence; in many countries with laws following the Napoleonic Civil Code, you are guilty until you prove your innocence (usually a light burden, however; compared with the heavy burden facing prosecutors in our criminal courts).

Largely because of this constitutional doctrine stating that everyone is innocent of any crime until proven innocent in a court of law, we journalists add the critical adjective “suspected” when writing a story about someone who has been arrested or is a police target.

Except when referring to brown-skinned Latinos, however. Journalists today commonly refer to undocumented persons as “illegal immigrants,” or more offensively: “illegal aliens” (as if they were from another planet?).

Use of the phrases illegal alien and illegal immigrant seems to go back to rise of angry, anti-immigrant sentiment that has long been festering in America. Here in San Diego, those two, denigrative phrases were commonly used years ago by flag-waving, gun-toting, anti-immigrant vigilantes called the “Minutemen;” and which once operated openly along our long border with México . . . some still do.

A few people feel threatened by the increase in Latinos in
America, where brown-skinned people now outnumber whites in some areas. Yet, our immigrant diversity has made our country stronger.

My journalism career began in ’47 with the Middletown Times Herald, nestled in the foothills of the Catskills and rich in Revolutionary War history. Back then, most of my small, hometown village of Monroe, New York was white; with a few “negroes” living along the Erie Railroad tracks. I met my first Latinos and Asians when I joined the Navy and became a combat photographer.

Recently while returning to visit my hometown, I was pleasantly surprised to find so many Latinos living in Monroe. Indeed, while walking along Lake Street, the main drag in the small village, two Latino youths were so pleasantly surprised when I said “buenas dias,” as we passed on the sidewalk.

However, some Mexican journalists I know go out of their way to become more Americanized, and will themselves use the degnirative terms illegal alien or illegal immigrant in their stories. That doesn’t make it right.

Let’s be good Americans and work in our craft of journalism in a manner consistent with our fundamental, constitutional principles. This is a matter of law; and not just Leo’s, personal opinion.

My long professional life has been a mixture of journalism and law (including four years of unprecedented, post-doctoral study in appellate law at the California Court of Appeal). Ethically, I believe journalists can practice their profession in a manner that’s consistent with our basic, constitutional laws.

For those newswriters who insist on using the phrase “illegal immigrant” (or perhaps because it is a required, company policy); add the modifying adjective “suspected,” as “pro” journalists do when writing about arrestees or police suspects.

Clearly, only the phrase undocumented immigrant is consistent with our fundamental, constitutional law. Hopefully our SPJ diversity committee will consider this issue during the upcoming national convention in Las Vegas.

The following resolution is being sent to SPJ diversity committee members for consideration:

A fundamental legal principle in our American constitutional law is that everyone (including non-citizens) is considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Consistent with that basic doctrine of law, journalists are urged to use the phrase “undocumented immigrant,” and avoid the denigrative phrases “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien.”

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  • Miryam Wiley

    Dear Mr. Leo Laurence,
    I am delighted with you commentary. As a journalist who has written for more than a decade about undocumented immigrants, I applaud you for your suggestion of “suspected” illegal immigrant, which would cause an interesting pause, I suspect, in those who are reading the article. I have encountered resistence from my editors when I used the word undocumented to refer to the immigrants. That is the preference of the immigrants themselves and their advocates, and it seems to me to be the most respectful form. I have seen my text changed, under my byline, to conform to AP Style. I found that disturbing, but had not say in the matter. I often remind people, in conversation, that the use of the word “undocumented” is a better choice. This week a laywer thanked me for making the correction. I also remind people that some of us have children with special needs, not special needs children. I was taught that by a great advocate of those with differences and certainly see that it makes a big difference tobring attention to the person first, then the special needs. Thank you very much for your commentary. Miryam Wiley, 20-year member of SPJ

  • Tim Sullivan

    How about using the term “hopeful American”.

  • ChristiaNicole

    Thank you Leo.
    More people, especially journalist should be educated and made aware of their speech in regard to materials that will be printed for the masses to read. Words have power on both ends of the scale of balance. The rights of The American Constitution are critically important, for it governs the treatment of people, (humanity) in this country. Every person should be innocent until proven guilty but we have seen time and time again, that not be the case. We have seen guilty and innocent people prosecuted, even crucified in the media like a modern day lynching, beaten and hung by words and phrases like “illegal immigrant”. With only a booking photo of the accused and a voice over of a news reporter, we veiwers at home are left with a leading impression. Unjust and unconstitutional. Before now I too used “illegal immigrant” when speaking on the subject but only for the lack of a better word. I now know a better word and I thank you.

  • Hart Keeble

    It seems to me that the premise of your argument is invalid in the sense than if used properly the term “illegal Immigrant” refers to those immigrants that are here illegally in the same way that the words “thieves” or “murderers” refer to those people who may have robbed or killed in an impersonal (generic) sense. Those that are in effect “illegal Immigrants” are those people (and only those) who have immigrated to the United States without complying with the immigration rules as opposed to those who have complied.

  • The phrase ”illegal Immigrant” perfectly describes those people who have entered and settled in this country without abiding by our immigration laws and have willfully evaded the legal process. I am unclear on how this phrase is hurtful and I am certain that if we were to use a synonymous phrase like “unlawful settler” or “criminal incomer” it would not be less hurtful. However the SPJ’s Diversity Committee does not recommend a synonymous phrase, they wish to twist the language, to control the narrative, to use phraseology which would grant journalistic amnesty to those “illicit aliens”.

    The SPJ’s Diversity Committeee insists that because in America the legal system presumes that one is innocent until proven guilty, journalist use the phrase “undocumented immigrant”. “Undocumented” is not the same as illegal, it is a word that falls short of defining the situation and is intentionally ambiguous. It implies that “undocumented immigrants” are not necessarily illegal. In a sane world this is not troubling and a quick verification process would settle the issue but in our current environment where any suggestion to produce documentation is equated to the Nazi demand to see your papers the end result is amnesty. Undocumented immigrants are innocent until proven guilty and only a racist nazi would insult them by demanding they produce documentation.

  • ted409,flagstaff,arizona

    well i think wetback or illegal aliens works just fine for me



  • Vern Williams

    Illegal Aliens is an accurate and entirely correct representation. I suppose you call a blind person “visually challenged” and a short person “height challenged”. I guess it would be a correct description to call them “citizenship challenged”, but that’s right your corrective action for people who do not respect and follow our laws and cross our boarders illegally is to grant them citizenship as punishment. You are what is WRONG about the traditional media outlets, never let the truth get in the way of a politically correct miss-statement. At one time a journalist was respected, now they are known for twisting the truth and revealing classified messages in violation of the Espionage Act of 1917. Which made it a crime:

    * To convey information with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the armed forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies. This was punishable by death or by imprisonment for not more than 30 years or both.

    * To convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies when the United States is at war, to cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or to willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States. This was punishable by a maximum fine of $10,000 fine or by imprisonment for not more than 20 years or both.

    You and your politically correct comrades who want to mince words about people violating our laws and make heroes or contribute to putting out troops and allies lives at risk are responsible for those deaths. I hope you can not sleep at night! I take your irresponsibility personally as the father of one in harms way.

  • Stanley Hicks

    BULL! You so-called professional journalists are ruining this country every time you refuse to tell it like it is…if somebody is here outside of the legal standards set for immigration, they are illegal immigrants. I personally don’t care if it offends them. I have spoken with many LEGAL immigrants and they take no offense at the term.

    To say it may be against the constitution is ludicrous…you folks take free speech for granted when it comes to protecting you sources or whenever it appeals to you, but you are weak, fearful little men/women when it comes to allowing others to use the same blanket of protection.

    If you had said any of the derogatory phrases used to describe any or all people of a certain race I would agree with you, but doing something outside of the law IS illegal – no matter how much you would want that to change.

    You journalists who twist words: call illegals undocumented, call terrorist-murderers suspected, and call vandalizing youths misguided are causing multitudes of problems in this country.

    Get a grip, get a back-bone, man-up….whatever….just stop trying to influence the rest of us and JUST REPORT THE NEWS WITHOUT YOUR PREJUDICES.

  • Stanley Hicks

    Oh I just read the comments…I had to laugh (then nearly cry) at the bleeding heart who wrote, “…crucified in the media like a modern day lynching, beaten and hung by words and phrases like “illegal immigrant”.” My goodness what a flair….surely a fiction writer – no self-respecting real journalist would dare utter such a remark. And what does it mean??? How is a person hung from a cross in print??? Such ‘fine’ prose.

    And to the “special needs child”….should we then, say immigrant-here-without-benefit-of-the-path-dictated-by-law?” And an editor changed your text???? Why HOW DARE SHE/HE??? What do they think they are???? EDITORS??? BTW, Merriam-Webster online shows an editor as one who edits and ‘edit’ as
    “to alter, adapt, or refine especially to bring about conformity to a standard or to suit a particular purpose .”

    BOOHOO…..and you “had not say in the matter.” Hummm, wonder why anybody would think you, a professional, would need an editor.

    BTW, comment as you like, I’m sure I won’t get back on this piece of garbage site to see it.

  • Mike

    Ahhhhh…the word police. Just what we need in a free society. The First Amendment included freedom of the press because that institution had a key and critical role to play in the success of our Republic. All I can say after reading this drivel is that the so-called “press” is failing miserably. Watching the systematic demise of this once honorable profession is troubling on so many levels. This is just one of many reasons why the media has lost the trust and confidence of the American people. To have a profession or to be a professional requires standards, ethics, and a code of conduct. Clearly, the Society for Professional Journalists is an oxymoron as this organization and many of its members certainly do not live up to any measurable level of professional standards or conduct. I have a simple recommendation to those who aspire to be a true professional journalist – it’s time to get back to the basics…put your biases aside and try “reporting” the news rather than making or shaping it to fit your own personal agendas.

  • BMoon

    Can we say “Smug, know-nothing, equivocating, dishonest, asshat elitists”?

  • Opinion writ…. I mean Journalist

    SPJ has an unbelievably skewed view of our constitution. For them to suggest the accurate term Illegal Immigrant is inconsistent with the fundamentals of constitutional law is absurd. Using the comparison between an Illegal Immigrant and a standard criminal (innocent until proven guilty) might be the biggest stretch for trying to convince yourself you are making sense.

    Do you actually get paid for this bias garbage?

    Next item on your list should be the term “Journalist” and how inconsistent that is with reality.

  • Dan;

    What a fool. IF you come here illegal you are illegal. I suppose that Tim McVay did not do anything illegal until he was tried. We should just call him and undocumented weapons expert. The constitution DOES NOT guarantee illegal the SAME rights as US Citizen. If illegals do not like what we call them then the are perfectly free to leave the country bound for the great home they just left. The fly Mexican flags in Chicago up we welcome diversity. The refuse to meld and join with our stew we call American Culture instead the wish to over power all other flavors. I have a new name for them criminal illegal aliens.

  • Stephen Lashley

    The hypocrisy here is absolutely astounding. In one breath, the author decries stereotyping a group of people, and then refers to an “anti-immigrant advocate.” The assumption being that every advocate who takes a position on border security must be against immigrants of any kind, legal or illegal, without exception. This is also a phrase that stereotypes a group of people and makes assumptions on their intentions in the EXACT same fashion.

    This is further compounded by the reference “flag-waving, gun-toting, anti-immigrant vigilantes called the “Minutemen.” This is angry statement assigns generalities to entire group of people without referring to specifics.
    Prejudice is not just rooted in race or physical appearance. There is also the prejudice of ideas. Spouting angry stereotypes because someone has a different world or political view is an act rooted in hate, just as stereotyping someone based on the color of their skin.

    If a journalist subtly infers racism to Tea Party members with no factual evidence to back it up; if they refer to conservatives as “right wing,” while referring to liberals as “left-leaning” or “centrist,” they are ginning up the same sentiments that the author is afraid will happen with the phrase “illegal immigrant.”

    When I see that the author engages in the same tactics that he claims to be against, it’s hard to take his opinion seriously.

  • Vern

    Illegal is..well…ILLEGAL. Do it the legal way and no one will say anything.

  • Roy

    Calling an Illegal Alien an Undocumented worker is wrong they are illegal and have broken our laws the term fits the crime. And using this reasoning why not call Drug Dealers Unlicensed pharmacist so they won’t be offended. I offended at all the PC crap tell it like it is don’t sugar coat it…

  • Dan;

    This is just one more step towards destroying this country and one world government!!!!

  • Steve

    Okay, so some might find the term offensive. I understand your line of thought. Would you then concede to suggestions of other terms found offensive to other segments of society?

    For example, I find “tea-bagger” offensive when referring to Tea Party ideas and proponents. Will you officially and thoughtfully declare that this phrase not be used by journalist?

    Also, I take a gut-wrenching offense to the word “fetus” when referring to a baby in the womb at ANY stage of development. Will you officially and thoughtfully declare that this word not be used by journalist?

    Are you really trying to raise the bar in decency and fairness or merely trying to bend on end of it?

  • A. Journalist

    This is just one more reason the media is called left wing. Have you lost your minds here? If they sneak across the border illegally they are ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS. Right?

  • Eric

    Mr. Laurence, it looks like you’ve gotten your a$$ handed to you in a basket on this one. You contradict yourself in your own article merely by using this phrase alone – “flag-waving, gun-toting, anti-immigrant vigilantes called the “Minutemen”.

    Please, do yourself a favor and think of what you are trying to convey and do it in a consistent manner. It would help you immensely. That or an act of God. Wait, perhaps I shouldn’t use that word…. hmmmm…. okay, lets use visually-absent deity.

  • Hello all and thank you for expressing your thoughts on this blog post. We want to make sure you know and understand that, contrary to many references in recent days, there is NO official SPJ or SPJ Diversity Committee initiative or campaign on this topic.

    This article (and following Quill magazine article) is a personal opinion piece by member Leo Laurence, reporting now past discussion within the committee on this topic. However, the committee did not actually reach any consensus, nor has SPJ, to pursue the proposed campaign. Although this piece does not reflect the views of SPJ, its membership or the committee, we do support Laurence’s First Amendment right to voice his thoughts as we do yours.

    Thank you for reading and I hope this helps with any clarifications.

  • Jaime

    Surely the headline was meant to say “illegal immigrant” rather than “illegal illigrant.” Or maybe that’s a new term I’m not familiar with.

  • patrick onesty

    It is no wonder that this country is so screwed up with people like Leo Laurence influencing so many others.

  • Paul

    Come the revolution I want to be the one to drag you from your comfortable home and hang you as the traitor you are. Enjoy the time you have left for it is short. You demand special treatment based on your profession but deny the duty to just TELL THE TRUTH without opinion. That is why you will be tarred, feathered and will never hold a position of trust again.

  • I personally think that “illegal alien or illegal immigrant” is fine, however, the decision on usage should be left to the individual publication. The AP Stylebook should allow multiple options. However, there’s no surprise that newspaper readership in local markets is dying. With the continual attempts at one-sided political correctness, the journalism industry is alienating its audience. Readers are tired or being lambasted into thinking that religion, guns and God are somehow lower-class and that intellectualism is reserved for the Columbia-trained.

    The constant “safety-consciousness” of our media diction has resulted in journalists often writing boring and uninspired copy. I would encourage journalists to read some of the Hemingway-era reportage and remember that journalism doesn’t have to be non-offensive — but it should always be compelling. There is no obligation for political correctness — someone will always be offended no matter what language is used. So let ’em be offended — tell a good story and do your jobs!

    And by the way, the term “anti-immigrant” is offensive. That’s implying anti-immigration when the proper term should be “anti-ILLEGAL-immigrant.” It’s a very important distinction lost on the author in his attempt to appeal to the La Raza segments of the SPJ.

  • jack

    The Spanish is buenos dias – not buenas dias. It is insulting to assume that Latinos do not speak English. And, some do not speak Spanish. But, if you want to show off your ability to speak Spanish, at least try to get it right.

  • james

    The correct term for someone illegal in this country is ILLEGAL ALIEN.
    I find it funny that anyone can think differently. these people are documented, in their home country. they sure as hell are not documented in the US.

    Im with Brian Dear on the “anti-immigrant” phrase. as America excepts more LEGAL immigrants every year than the rest of the world combined. The term anti-illegal immigrant means just that, people who dont think illegals should be here, dont think they should be given any special treatment or any kind.

  • S.E. Thomas

    The number of illegal alien college students paying in-state tuition and receiving financial aid at Texas’ public colleges and universities continues to climb, according to state higher education records.
    FAIR’s estimate of the state’s illegal alien population as of 2007 is about 1,740,000 persons. This is part of an overall estimate of the U.S. illegal alien population of about 13 million persons.
    Since 2001, Texas has allowed illegal aliens to receive in-state tuition at Texas A&M and other state universities. HB 1403 was passed in 2001, and it made Texas the first state to give in-state tuition to illegal aliens.
    Instead of cutting taxes or fixing roads, Texas forked out the money to subsidize 12,138 illegal students this school year. This costs Texans millions each year.
    “If we do nothing, in 10 years, just based on the current birth rate, we’re going to have 50 million (illegal immigrants and their children) in the United States. Our country will change totally. Our culture will be gone,” said state Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler. “We’ve been invaded without firing a shot.”

    And with Congress failing to enact comprehensive immigration reform, illegal immigrants are poised to become one of the hottest issues before the Texas Legislature. Illegal Aliens – Don’t want em, Don’t need em.

  • S.E. Thomas

    And if we offend those by not speaking the spanish language right, that’s easy to answer. This is America, not mexico, not spain, not argentina. It’s called English. Take the effort to learn it. if not, go back where you came from and speak it there.

  • SB


    Thank you for your (weak attempt at) defending Leo Lawrence. I’m sure he appreciates your support, since obviously from the comments above, he has none.

    But for the rest of us Americans, your support of Lawrence is moot. Yes, under the 1st Amendment he has the right to opine, just as Hitler would have if he was here in the USA. However, YOU (the SPJ) complicitly gave Lawrence a 1st-Amendment platform to spew his illogical perversion of our Constitution and 1st Amendment — therefore YOU are complicit too. As an editor, you could have simply scrapped Lawrence’s submission. BUT YOU DID NOT. Hmmmmmmmmmm.

    Thanks for your poor attempt at distancing yourselves from Lawrence, but we are not stupid. You obviously posted your disclaimer because you were getting too much heat from Americans. It’s a little too late for your apologies and disclaimers. This is the Internet; people can copy and paste your published articles, EXACT DATE AND TIME AFFIXED. I’m sorry for you; it’s too late for you to do damage-control.

    I am a first-time reader of your website. Man o man, if you can allow this perversion of truth amongst your writers, then why should I believe anything else you post? I DON’T THINK I CAN.

  • Ed

    More pc bull crap how original my check will be in the mail but oops there is not enough funds to clear is that illegal or am I financially challenged

  • John Rhoads

    If I hunt or fish without a license, that is an illegal activity. If I operate a vehicle without liability insurance, that is illegal. If I don’t pay my taxes, that is illegal. If a Mexican enters the United States without a passport or visa, that is illegal. Mr. Laurence is doing what most ‘journalist’ do these days: placing the onus somewhere besides on the person engaged in illegal activity. How pathetic.

  • Lee Ellak

    The law clearly defines the term alien so it is appropriate.

    The term undocumented doesn’t fit. How do you know the person is undocumented? You had to have checked. Undocumented, therefore, means the person is in the country illegally because you checked for documentation.

    Alien plus illegal means illegal alien.

    Perhaps the Society of Professional Journalists should refer to the folks that just jumped over the fence as “suspected illegal aliens,” instead of “illegal aliens.” But by calling them “undocumented” means they are illegal aliens.

  • Lee Ellak

    Thanks for the clarification on the Society’s view: “The following article is an opinion piece and does not reflect the views of SPJ, its membership or its Diversity Committee. The committee itself has taken no official initiative on this topic.”

    When I saw the Society’s mention on Mallard Fillmore’s cartoon strip, I came to this website to get more information. I actually never heard of this group until I saw it presented by Mallard Fillmore, the Duck’s comic strip.

    I just finished a paralegal immigration class and we used the term “illegal alien.” If it is good enough for a paralegal immigration class, it’s good enough for me.

    My personal opinion, though, is that laws are being ignored on the illegal immigration front. Sanctuary cities offer safe haven to these lawbreakers. States point the finger at the federal government and say it’s the federal government’s job yet these states tolerate sanctuary cities. Employers hire illegal aliens.

    Counties, like Santa Clara County in Silicon Valley, vote to opt out of the Secure Communities program which detects illegal CRIMINAL aliens which only encourages more illegal aliens to seek safe haven there.

    The laws are already being ignored. Reducing the onus of illegal immigration to the watered-down term “undocumented” only further damages the respect for United States immigration law.

    To see a different use of term “undocumented,” substitute “illegal drugs” with “undocumented drugs.”

    It doesn’t have the same impact. It’s taking the sting out of the term and it shouldn’t, in my opinion.

    The border jumpers are illegal aliens. It is another charge that they are also here without papers. And without security checks. And without health checks. And without jobs. And without proof they can stay off welfare.

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