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SPJ's Diversity Blog » Blog Archive » Phrase “illegal immigrant” offends law | A Society of Professional Journalists Blog

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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