Society of Professional Journalists: Time to stop using ‘illegal alien’

The Society of Professional Journalists passed a resolution at its conference earlier this week urging journalists and style guide editors to stop using the term “illegal alien” and to reconsider using “illegal immigrant.” The resolution states that only a court can judge whether someone has “committed an illegal act,” and that “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.” SPJ president-elect Sonny Albarado said he hopes the resolution “shows people that journalists are concerned about being accurate when they refer to people, plus I hope it helps shape the discussion.”

The SPJ resolution doesn’t state what term journalists should use instead. The AP Stylebook states that “illegal immigrant” is the preferred term, rather than “illegal alien” or “undocumented worker,” and it tells journalists not to use “illegals.” || Related: reports increased use of “illegal” and “alien” in media coverage | Jose Antonio Vargas plans to report on immigration issues as he lobbies for policy changes | Vargas’ essay renews attention to media’s use of ‘illegal’ & ‘undocumented’

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • Louise

    The word “immigrant” means that a person has gone through the immigration process and is therefore, legal. To use “illegal immigrant” instead of “illegal alien” is just absurd and more PC bullcrap than most of us can stomach. If people don’t want to be called illegal aliens, then they need to stop sneaking into this country.

  • FlaFan

    How about “undocumented immigrant”? That’s about as accurate as it gets.

  • Anonymous

    They are “illegal aliens”.  If they were “Immigrants” they would not be “illegal”.

  • Anonymous

    “Undocumented worker” is also just as inaccurate as these folks claim “illegal alien” is. How do we know they’re actually working and not just, you know, here?

  • Dan Mitchell

    And what “word” is that, exactly? If you really thought language mattered — as language (precise, honest, communicative) — you wouldn’t be pushing this nonsense. 

  • Curtis Lawrence

    Language matters. Thanks to Romenesko, Richard Prince and others  for getting the word out.
    Curtis Lawrence
    Chair, SPJ Diversity Committee

  • Ron Hayes

    May I also suggest that henceforth the media might consider referring to burglars as “uninvited guests”?

    This is political correctness at its worst. The fact is, the term “illegal alien” is rarely used about specific individuals unless they are already determined to be in the country illegally. This is tantamount to arguing that we shouldn’t use the term “rapist” because some people accused of rape might later be found guilty. And finally, why is it no one ever objects to “resident alien.”

    Come on, guys, you can all see through this, right? And I”m a liberal Democrat!

  • Dan Mitchell

    There’s not nearly as much “politically correct” stuff in the world as many conservatives would have us believe (conservatives, take note: it’s not a synonym for “not racist” or for “not an awful thing to say”), but this is a classic example of it. I agree “illegal alien” sounds ugly and should be avoided. Luckily, we have the much more neutral-sounding “illegal immigrant.” It also happens, when applied correctly, to be perfectly accurate, apt and descriptive, whether or not one agrees with a given set of immigration laws or policies.

    Of course we should never use it to apply to any particular person unless we know it’s accurate. But that’s true of all descriptive words and phrases. We don’t generally run them all by courts of law to get permission to use them. Is there a  big problem with journalists wrongly accusing particular people of being illegal immigrants? If not, then all we have here is a classic attempt to grind down the language so that it may be reshaped to further a political aim: something that’s hardly new, and something that always needs to be resisted. Illegal immigrants exist, even if a group pursuing a political interest finds that fact inconvenient.

    It’s both telling and downright hilarious that the SPJ measure proposes no alternative. I’d have much more respect for the SPJ if it encouraged all journalism students, and all its members, to read and fully understand this before learning anything else about their craft:

  • Jon

    if “illegal immigrant” is a pejorative than “undocumented worker” is an endorsement.