Vargas’ essay renews attention to media’s use of ‘illegal’ & ‘undocumented’

Should journalists call Jose Antonio Vargas an illegal immigrant or an undocumented one?

Discussions about how to refer to an immigrant who isn’t authorized to live in the U.S. have popped up periodically in newsrooms. But Vargas’ recent New York Times essay — and his stature as high-profile, Pulitzer-winning journalist — has thrust the media into a bigger role in the debate.

In his essay, Vargas refers to himself as an undocumented immigrant. In a tweet last week, he noted that many people were tweeting about the controversial essay with the hashtag #undocumented immigrant. “Undocumented immigrant is trending,” he tweeted from his @joseiswriting handle. “So let’s drop ‘illegal’ and ‘alien.’” No person is illegal or an alien.”

Increasingly, immigration advocates are questioning the media’s language usage. Last fall, Colorlines, an online magazine that covers racial justice issues, launched a campaign called “Drop the I-Word.” Supporters are asked to urge media outlets to use “undocumented” rather than “illegal.”

Independent of the campaign, publications such as the San Antonio News-Express in Texas and the Monterey County Herald in California have made changes, and others are considering doing the same.

Many mainstream media outlets use “illegal,” following Associated Press style. AP’s Deputy Standards Editor David Minthorn told me via email that “undocumented” isn’t used because the term “implies that the issue is more one of paperwork than the legal right to be in the country.”

The AP Stylebook also states that “illegal alien” and “illegal” as nouns should be avoided. Minthorn said that the AP adopted its entry in 2004 after “considerable discussion on adopting neutral terminology to describe this situation.”

The New York Times also uses “illegal immigrant.” Vargas was allowed leeway to use “undocumented” because he was writing a first-person piece, said Danielle Rhoades Ha, a Times spokeswoman.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists, however, would like more media outlets to re-evaluate their style. The group’s resource guide says that the term “illegal” is often used as a pejorative. Calling immigrants “illegal” also unfairly criminalizes them, according to an NAHJ statement. Being in this country without authorization is not a crime; it’s a civil violation.

Last fall, it was language usage — not just content — that roused readers when the Fresno Bee published a seven-part series about the hypocrisies in the immigration policies and the farming economy of California’s Central Valley. Many readers protested the paper’s use of the term “illegal immigrant.” An English professor at Fresno City College, for instance, started a Facebook group asking people to boycott the paper during the series.

The Bee decided to continue using the term “illegal.” The paper believes it’s the “best option, but recognize that others disagree for various reasons,” Executive Editor Betsy Lumbye said in a story the Bee published about the controversy.

Claudia Melendez Salinas, an education reporter at the Monterey County Herald, pushed her newspaper to change its style to “undocumented immigrant.” The change was made in 2008, and staffers have been reminded when the term “illegal immigrant” slips into paper, Melendez said via email.

Melendez said that publications should change style when words describing a group have become outdated or inappropriate. Newspapers had previously used the N-word, she pointed out.

“I told them ‘illegal’ was offensive and compared it to other offensive labels like ‘spic,’ Melendez said of her talk with editors. “That’s how people use it, if you think about it.”

The San Antonio Express-News changed its style to “unauthorized immigrant” — a compromise decision. “It doesn’t have the bite of illegal immigrant or illegal alien … but it doesn’t have the sanitizing effect of ‘undocumented,’ which implies that said immigrant just misplaced his papers,” Public Editor Bob Richter wrote last year in a column about the change.

Recently, the San Diego Union-Tribune decided to re-evaluate its usage of “illegal immigrant.” Editor Jeff Light said the issue had been brought up last month by the publication’s Latino community advisory board, which works with the newsroom on staff development, coverage issues and Spanish-language products. Light has asked a few reporters to see how other news outlets are handling it.

“I am interested in discussing whether we should change it,” he said via email. “I have no idea whether we will or not at this point.”

Whatever is decided, the debate is a reminder of the power of words and the implications they can have for journalists, readers and sources.

Which term does your newsroom use, and why?

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  • Poynter

    Thanks, @SoYo:disqus. We double-checked with Claudia, and she said she typically goes by “Melendez” on second reference. I’ve updated the piece to reflect that.

    ~Mallary Tenore

  • Anonymous

    This is, by far, one of the best opinions I’ve read about why we need to ditch the terms “illegal” and “alien” altogether. Newspaper reporting should be, above all, fair, and when our words contribute to the stigmatization of a group of people, we’re not being fair. We’re playing into the hands of those who much rather see people remain at the bottom rung of the social ladder, with little or no means to defend themselves. C’mon, we’re supposed to be the voice of the voiceless, and if those “voiceless” continually tell us they find the term  “illegal” insulting, we plain and simple are not doing our job.

  • Jessica Binsch

    Thanks for writing this. I think the question of which term to use is very challenging for journalists because we want to describe people objectively. The term “illegal” is very hateful and discriminating, and “alien” is additionally outdated. 
    “Undocumented” isn’t perfect either: Some of the people who live in the U.S. illegally do have documents like a passport or driver’s license (like Vargas), just not ones that authorize them to live here. Also agree with Adam Townsend’s comment that there are other instances which can cause legal limbo for immigrants.
    The problem in media terms is that a correct, neutral description like “those who live in the country illegally or have overstayed visas” is… long and clunky. I wrote a piece about this last year when I worked on a story about immigrant activism, and I really struggled with the terminology. See here:

  • Soy Yo

    i’d like to point out that “Salinas” is not the reporter’s last name but rather Melendez Salinas. If you wished to use just one last name, then you needed to go with Melendez…

  • research papers

    Thanks for the suggestion – I’ll make sure it’s included in the thinking.

  • resume

    thanks a lot for the post! very interesting!

  • Barney Lerten

    Well if ICE has a no-bail hold on someone in our jail, I’d say to call them a ‘suspected illegal immigrant’ is not pejorative. It’s quite similar to ‘rape suspect,’ etc.

  • Mia Kline

    I paid $32.67 for a XBOX 360 and my mom got a 17 inch Toshiba laptop for $94.83 being delivered to our house tomorrow by FedEX. I will never again pay expensive retail prices at stores. I even sold a 46 inch HDTV to my boss for $650 and it only cost me $52.78 to get. Here is the website we using to get all this stuff,

  • Anonymous

    Come now.

    If someone immigrates and applies for asylum through the legal route, they most certainly are documented. Here is a novel idea: Let’s be as accurate as possible. If someone is in the United States fraudulently, without proper papers, they are, by definition, here illegally. So let’s call them either illegal immigrants or illegal aliens–either one is fine by me, and you can’t get any more accurate than that. I say that as a resident alien, a term that doesn’t bother me in the least. I have more important things to worry about than dreaming up kinder, gentler terms for the obvious.

  • Anonymous

    Would you call someone accused of rape, but not convicted, a “rapist?” Would you call someone accused of extortion, but not convicted, an “extortionist?” No? Thought so.

    “Illegal immigrant” has a specific legal meaning. In fact, it has “illegal” in it. Therefore, calling someone an illegal immigrant is saying that that person broke the law. But journalists aren’t the judges of who broke the law and who didn’t. We leave that up to the courts to decide. Furthermore, suspects are innocent until proven guilty. Calling someone an “illegal immigrant” before he or she is proven guilty is assuming guilt under the law.

  • Dan Balcar

    I cringe when people say “no one is an alien.” Alien means foreigner; it wasn’t until the fictional story “Alien From Another Planet” that the term applied to spacemen. Notice the qualifier “from another planet.”  Alien means not from here, whether this country or this planet. Sheeshhh

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Vargas was hardly “undocumented.” Like many or perrhaps most illegal immigrants, he had plenty of documents—but they were based on lies told to authorities, or outright forgeries.
    I think a fairer and more complete label for such foreigners in our country under false pretenses would be: “illegal immigrant carrying false or forged documents.”

  • Anonymous

    My God people…..WAKE UP!!!!!!!!  
    If I’m not mistaken the word ILLEGAL means AGAINST THE LAW…..and if they’re not here legally that means they’re here illegally which means they’re  breaking the law which makes them ILLEGAL…..aliens, immigrants I really don’t care….they’re breaking the law so that means they’re CRIMINALS…..
    Let’s start using this title….CRIMINAL ALIENS…….
    Between the mexicans and the rag heads we, as AMERICANS absolutely have to stand up and take our country back…..PERIOD…….


    I swear that this whole invasion thing is going beyond rational thinking.  ILLEGAL means, someone who has no legal permission to be here.  MY GOD!… I can’t wait til Nov. 2012, when the nation really expresses how it feels, regarding this topic of ILLEGAL ALIENS.  If democrats feel that last year was a blow to them, during the mid-term election… jajajaja… Just wait until Nov. 2012.  JUST WAIT… 

  • Andrew Free

    So part of the problem with the “illegal alien” terminology is that we have an immigration court system, and in that court system, the government bears an initial burden of proving that the subject of a removal proceeding is, indeed, an “alien”, i.e., someone who wasn’t born here. Only once the government bears that burden does the person in removal proceedings have to demonstrate why they get to stay. It’s not uncommon that the person succeeds. In this context, calling someone an “illegal alien” is analogous to calling DSK a “sex criminal” or John Edwards a “perjurer” or Casey Anthony a “murderer.” Sure, people will do it. But the media by and large refrain from using those words out of deference to the courts and our traditional presumption of innocence. Just as significantly, they refrain from such characterizations for fear of being sued for defamation. 

    As important a problem is that the term, “illegal alien”, at least as the AP editor uses it in the email you reference, is inaccurate as a descriptive matter. It’s simply not the case legally that every person without documents has no “right to be here.” Rather, asylees and refugees, victims of crime and/or trafficking and vast categories of others may indeed have that right, despite their unauthorized presence.But the biggest part of the problem with calling people “illegal aliens” or, worse yet, “illegal”, is the counterproductive stigmatization that happens to the folks you’re describing. People who are painted with the “illegal” brush are less likely to pursue perfectly legitimate and legal options for legitimizing their immigration status because they accept this label and incorporate it into their self-perceptions. This can be disastrous for a person who is a victim of domestic violence or human trafficking, or for someone who’s been here ten years, has good moral character, and is related to a citizen or permanent resident who’d suffer extreme and exceptional hardship if the person’s deported. All of these folks may have ways to “become legal.” But rarely do they pursue these avenues proactively, largely because of the negative impact of these labels. Why should our print media be complicit in that stigmatization, particularly when the descriptor is at least partially inaccurate? 

  • Anonymous

    They should call him what he is…An ILLEGAL
    Care to know why?
    He is here in violation of US immigration
    laws.(The illegal part.)
    And the word alien is used in our immigration laws
    to define someone that is here but not a citizen of the US.(The alien

    The USCIS even uses the term illegal alien.
    To make it even
    easier on those that have difficulty with this nomenclature is the USCIS

  • Adam Townsend

    I would argue that undocumented is more correct when speaking in general about immigration because there are instances in which an immigrant crosses a border without authorization, but is doing so in the course of seeking political asylum, which is legal. There are also other instances in which immigrants who are lumped into this debate are in a legal limbo as to their right to be in this country, such as expired visas, etc. So I would say “There has been much debate about the proliferation of undocumented immigrants,” but, “The three men were deported when the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials determined them to be illegal immigrants.”