On “illegal alien/immigrant”

I have to admit to being skeptical last year when controversy broke out over Leo Laurence’s column in SPJ’s Quill magazine on use of the phrase “illegal immigrant.”

I’ve certainly used it many times over the last decade in keeping with guidelines spelled out in the Associated Press Stylebook.

Here’s what the AP Stylebook (2006 edition) has to say about the term: “Illegal Immigrant – Used to describe those who have entered the country illegally. It is the preferred term rather than illegal alien or undocumented worker.”

Sometimes I’ve also used the term “undocumented immigrant.” While looking back at stories written by my colleagues, I found plenty of instances where both terms were used in immigration-related stories.

Less common was use of the term “illegal alien.” Webster’s Dictionary still includes the secondary definition of alien as “a foreign-born resident who has not been naturalized and is still a subject or citizen of a foreign country.”

But that usage seems antique now. Science fiction movies and television programs like “The X-Files” have rendered the more common use of the word to refer to an extra-terrestrial — the third meaning listed in Webster’s.

So when the issue came up last week at the SPJ convention in the form of a resolution, I still wasn’t entirely convinced of the need to question use of the term “illegal immigrant.”

Others who shared my skepticism questioned the resolution’s wording.

Then Rebecca Aguilar got up to speak.

Rebecca is a member of SPJ’s Fort Worth Pro chapter. She attended the convention this year as one of six diversity fellows, a program that has been a valuable asset to the Society by ensuring that underrepresented voices are heard in debates like this one.

After receiving permission to speak as a non-delegate, Rebecca told voting delegates how she is the daughter of undocumented immigrants.

She talked about how her mother reads the Toledo Blade* every day and later became a U.S. citizen. Her mother believes in the work that journalists like her daughter do and its importance to society, Rebecca said.

But it pains her mom whenever she sees the term “illegal alien” in the newspaper.

“Every time you use the words ‘illegal alien,’ you insult my mother,” Rebecca told the delegates. “‘Alien’ is an ugly word.”

You could feel the whole debate start to shift as she sat down. I know I was moved. A short time later, the delegates approved the resolution by a resounding voice vote.

My gripe with the term “illegal immigrant” is not the phrase itself, but with the loose and imprecise way that it is applied.

I’ve had the experience of covering large scale immigration arrests at a meat packing plant or vehicle accidents where large numbers of people are arrested.

It’s not uncommon, however, for authorities to release several people the next day after determining that indeed they had papers. To call these people “illegal” is sloppy and inaccurate.

My concern is not one of being politically correct as it being precise and accurate.

When police arrest someone on a burglary charge, we don’t refer to them the next day as “illegal burglars.” They are burglary suspects.

I don’t see why we can’t treat immigration cases like any other arrests. A person under arrest is suspected of entering the country illegally until authorities are in fact sure that they did.

It’s worth noting that while the resolution (full wording below) urges journalists to stop using the term “illegal alien,” it stopped short of asking them not to use the term “illegal immigrant.”

Instead, it simply encourages “continuous discussion and re-evaluation of the use of ‘illegal immigrant’ in news stories.”

That seems like a healthy idea to me.

I’m curious about what you think. Please take a moment to respond to the poll at the end of this column.

Here is the resolution approved at the convention:

WHEREAS, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics urges all journalists to be “honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information” and;

WHEREAS, mainstream news reports are increasingly using the politically charged phrase “illegal immigrant” and the more offensive and bureaucratic “illegal alien” to describe undocumented immigrants, particularly Latinos and;

WHEREAS, a fundamental principle embedded in our U.S. Constitution is that everyone (including non-citizens) is considered innocent of any crime until proven guilty in a court of law and;

WHEREAS, this constitutional doctrine, often described as “innocent-until-proven-guilty,” applies not just to U.S. Citizens but to everyone in the United States and;

WHEREAS, only the court system, not reporters and editors, can decide when a person has committed an illegal act and;

WHEREAS, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists is also concerned with the increasing use of pejorative and potentially inaccurate terms to describe the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States;

THEREFORE, be it resolved that the Society of Professional Journalists convention of delegates: urges journalists and style guide editors to stop the use of illegal alien and encourage continuous discussion and re-evaluation of the use of illegal immigrant in news stories.

* In fairness to the Blade, the term “illegal immigrant” is used far more often that “illegal alien” judging by a search of the paper’s website, although examples of both can be found.

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Should reporters covering immigration stories use the word:
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  • Curtis Lawrence

    Thanks, John, for keeping the discussion alive and reminding us that the words we use are important.

  • Megan Maguire

    Excellent article, John.

    Whilst I’m torn about the proper way to acknowledge certain portions of the population, I am also EXHAUSTED by the arguments. Semantics are semantics. If you use a term in a pejorative manner, it is insulting. If you use it because it is the most common, accurate descriptor, then it shouldn’t be interpreted as a wrongdoing.

    For example, I know many black people. I refuse to refer to them as African Americans because a) some of them are not American and b) I know several white Africans.

    While I think we can all agree that there certain racial terms are considered incredibly insulting, “black” is the word I find to be most comfortable. My grandmother used the word “colored”, and because she never used it in a negative way, I think this was okay.

    Same goes for undocumented/illegal/immigrants/aliens. Insulting tone=insulting term.

  • Matthew Rensen

    The question should not even be asked. Free speech and freedom of the press is a constitutional right.

  • Leo E. Laurence

    The resolution is based on the fundimental doctrine in our U.S. Constiution that says that everyone (including non-citizens) is innocent of any crime until proven guilty by a court. Most countries in the world have a similar rule.
    Thanks to our S-P-J president for his candid comments.
    (leopowerhere@msn.com)

  • Allan Lovelace

    Unless immigration status is relevant to the story, there should no mention of it. Journalists should use the word “people” or something else that is not offensive in that case. If immigration status is relevant, “undocumented immigrant” or just “immigrant” should be used. Keep in mind that many Native Americans consider whites who stole their land and killed millions of their people to be illegal immigrants, and that feeling exists today among many people. Treat others as you would have them treat you. Don’t be arrogant.

  • Susan Schwartz

    Thanks for the thoughtful column.

    I worry about losing the meaning of words in our quest not to offend someone.

    Like it or not, it is against the law to enter this country without going through the proper immigration procedure. People who don’t do so are, indeed, in the country illegally and are illegal immigrants, just as people who drive without driver’s licenses are illegal drivers. They’re not just undocumented, which implies a mere oversight in filing paperwork – they’re doing something against the law.

    That doesn’t mean the law is right. I think we should make it easier for people to enter this country legally. And I think people who entered the U.S. illegally and built an otherwise law-abiding life here should have a way to become legal residents or citizens. But in the mean time, we need to call things what they really are, if only to have a clear discussion.

  • Allan Lovelace

    If we are going to call things what they really are, we would need to refer to whites in the U.S. as illegal immigrants who stole the land from Native Americans and killed millions of their people. This is the way whites are thought of by many Native Americans in the U.S., and they are correct in this view. To understand this better, read analyses of the bogus land deals and broken treaties whites signed in their successful efforts to steal the land from Native Americans. Latinos, by the way, are part Native American and thus they are more entitled to be here than whites are.

  • Dave Francis

    WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW—HURTS? Illegal Immigration, Voter fraud and E-Verify.

    Every American can do their part, to insure that ‘THE LEGAL WORKFORCE ACT’ (H.R.2885) and get to the floor of the House of Representatives. It’s the only way to get future satisfaction of saving the billions of dollars we give reluctantly, to illegal aliens. E-Verify–the bill would require 100% of businesses to begin using E-Verify for all new hires within 2 years and require all federal and state governments to check new hires and existing employees within 6 months. Although the official figures estimates there are only 11.5 million illegal aliens in the US, other reputable organizations exceeds this number by at least another 10 million. Of these 8.5 foreign nations have claimed a job unlawfully, while 22 to 24 million citizens and legally here residents are unemployed. These are non-agricultural numbers and this could be reduced by the immediate vote of ‘The legal Workforce Act.’

    Unknown numbers of illegal families began departing Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina, with the introduction of harsh policing laws and headed for other states with more flexible immigration laws—California and Nevada included. Sanctuary States will be overwhelmed, with economic illegal aliens, looking for free money and other easy accessed welfare benefits. Thousands of American workers are already replacing the illegal absconders, as business have no option but to look elsewhere for labor. The days of cheap illegal labor is over and so are the big profits they have for years.

    There is no time to wait, as E-Verify must become mandatory, instead as it is now—voluntary. Hundreds of thousands of businesses are now hooked up to the electronic program and can now vet their workers. Businesses that are not using E-Verify needs to learn an expensive lesson of harsh fines, company profit confiscation and prison for hiring unauthorized labor. Rick Perry unlike most of the others, is true GOP establishment and not a member of the TEA PARTY leadership.

    Citizens and legal residents must challenge the Republicans dominated House and insist on E-Verify. The ‘Ways and Means Committee led by Majority Speak John Boehner (R-OH) must adopt the Mandatory E-Verify Bill (H.R. 2885.) and should be bombarded with insistent voters. Reps. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.), Tim Johnson (R-Ill.), Reps. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) and Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) , Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) have cosponsored House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith’s Legal Workforce Act (H.R.2885), with new members to sponsor in the forthcoming wings. Not sure what to do? Go to NumbersUSA web site, where you can freely fax politicians or you can also can locate them through this phone number at 202-224-312; the Congressional Switchboard.

    Monday, November 7, 2011 currently has 100 sponsors and 57 co-sponsors.

    Our freedoms and liberty are under constant attack by the Liberals, Democrats and even hard core Republicans, so that’s why everybody is fed up with the usual trash from Washington; ‘The Quid Pro Quo’ should join the massive population of the growing TEA PARTY. We must anticipate that in the 2011 Presidential race, the impending gubernatorial and state legislative elections in Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia will be electing governors. . In addition, 578 state legislative seats are available, with the majority of these in Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia where the fate of politicians are in the hands of voters. ILLEGAL ALIENS HAVE BEEN VOTING AND WILL IN THE FUTURE. Democrats are looking the other way, as this has been happening nationwide. We must be watchful of Congressman as Keith Ellison, who could cripple our voting system. Ellison would weaken our nation’s policies even more so, than the voting regulations are already so poorly enforced.

    In agriculture, the dairy industry for decades they have been substantial subsidies, but that has not filtered through to the illegal workers. Poor wages and even poorer conditions will not bring US citizens and lawful residents to the farmers or others need. The American people are finally aware that the farmers do not pay for the hospital care in case of injury, sickness and that all their children go to public schools and these benefits; fall in to the US taxpayers lap to pay. Eventually a uniform system of tracking agricultural worker, with employment visa over-stays deported.

    Georgia’s Secretary of State’s office is obligated to administer elections and investigate allegations of voter fraud. Brian P. Kemp, who is Georgia Secretary of State, said that Georgia’s elections are among the most secure in the nation, and we take every measure possible to guarantee the integrity, security, and fairness of our elections process. Election voter fraud undermines the very foundations of our great state and country, and will not be tolerated under any circumstances. Then in the Liberal Progressive window or a leftist Democrat Congressman called Keith Ellison from Minnesota’s wants to impose on his state a slack election system and also on the rest of this sovereign nation. This moron has introduced two bills to impose the worst two aspects of Minnesota’s system on the entire country. This arrangement undermines election integrity and trust we used to share as citizens.

    This Democrat “Same Day Registration Act” H.R. 3316 and its attendant H.R. 3317 would involve all states to allow unconfirmed voters to register and vote on Election Day. This would be outrageous enough and is mild compared to being infuriated by the second bill, namely “Voter Access Protection Act,” which would forbid states from requiring voters to show photo ID. Perhaps 25 years ago—but not anymore, when we have notorious groups like Acorn, caught using low-life’s collecting hundreds of thousands of registrations, which should have been flushed down the toilet. Democrats are out to win the presidential race, in any way they can—and have, as ACORN was prosecuted by numerous state attorneys for fraudulent voter registrations. Its federal funding dropped a supposedly dismantled, but however it has resurfaced in New York under a new name. To me and I’m sure to tens of millions of TEA PARTY members this is beyond incredulous, that any politician would try to destroy what little is left of our freedoms. Under no restraint H.R. 3316, in expelling all photo identification necessities, and H.R. 3317, that would allow people to walk into a polling station, register and vote straight away in all 50 states. GOD HELP US!

    America can no longer support the poverty entering this country. If we don’t look after our own veterans, our own homeless, how we supposed to be the PPO health care for the world. This is an invitation to financial disaster, when large parts of the 16 percent living in poverty are illegal migrants and immigrants

    Rep. Ellison states his proposals are needed to “curb voter suppression” and shield the rights of young, elderly and minority voters, except photo ID laws in 14 other states have been challenged in America and state Supreme Courts and plaintiffs have no evidence that a single voter would be disenfranchised by those laws. Perhaps Mr. Ellison should investigate the growing trend of illegal aliens or even permanent residence, either by being misled by registration canvassers or using ‘The Motor Voter’ bill to vote. This is extremely dangerous in very close races and has been prevalent in many states throughout the nation. Hopefully the citizens of Vermont see through this reckless law, and drive this unpatriotic fool from Montpelier.

    The state of Georgia maintains a website for US citizens or any individual to inform the Secretary of State of violations in their voting law. In fact every American state should provide a website to report this serious wrongdoing, as it is undermining the basic foundation of citizen’s right to vote. This is not just a threat within a the polling stations, but where anybody could walk in and profess to be a citizen, Under bills introduced by Rep. Ellison brought to Congress or in his own state of Vermont would have irredeemable consequence to our electoral system. , One of the easiest documents to forge—is the absentee ballot. Outside of the influence of a Secretary of State’s Elections Division is easily compromised.

    We already have almost indescribable problems with the illegal aliens side-stepping our borders, or slipping through air terminals. Every American state should power their politicians to supply a law, that every American has a government photo ID to vote. In addition today when our country is carrying a near 15 Trillion deficit, we need to start repatriating all illegal foreign nationals. When our elderly cannot find a seat in a clogged emergency room, as the hospital has become overpopulated with illegal parents and their children. That these impoverished people have no conception of the cost for a minor infection, an Aspirin or major treatment. That these are unfunded mandates, which include the education of their many children, is carried by the US taxpayers.

    Overcrowded public school classroom, congested hospital emergency waiting rooms, is what’s seen above the surface—the massive financial costs are hidden below. Over a $113 Billion dollars is attributed to subsidizing foreign aliens, so surveyed by a Heritage foundation report.

    No matter where these undocumented are from, they must go home. This is where Lamar Smiths E-VERIFY is so urgently important. The ‘LEGAL WORKFORCE ACT’ will shift the legal responsibility, over to the employer. They will be charged with insuring every worker fills in a I-9 form and identifies the recipient, who has been hired. That the business owner checks their ’Right to Work’ verification through the federal E-Verify process. Those who are ineligible can verify their lawful status, through appearing at the nearest Social Security office, to rectify any problem. Of course No Liberal associated newspaper pass this information, staying silent about any irregularities as they are determined to cripple any chance of this commonsense bill from becoming law.

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