By John Ensslin, 2011-12 SPJ President | October 3rd, 2011
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.