The New York Times explains why it still uses ‘illegal immigrant’

Time MagazineABC NewsPoliticoPoynter
Jose Antonio Vargas is asking news organizations to stop using the term “illegal immigrant,” saying it’s inhumane and inaccurate.

During his keynote speech at the Online News Association conference on Friday, Vargas said his first two targets will be The New York Times and the Associated Press. Vargas told Politico he has spoken with New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan about the issue and plans to talk with the Associated Press’ standards editors about it.

In an email interview, Sullivan said she’s open to hearing Vargas’ thoughts and has been familiarizing herself with the Times’ reasoning for using the term “illegal immigrant.”

“Language does evolve and sometimes newspapers can contribute,” said Sullivan, who wrote about the issue. “Of course, such a change would not be my decision. At any rate, I’m looking forward to hearing more about it.”

Phil Corbett, associate managing editor for standards, explained via email why the Times uses “illegal immigrant,” and some of the challenges the term raises.

Obviously we know this is a sensitive area, one that we continue to struggle with. As my colleague Julia Preston, who covers immigration, has suggested, we’re trying hard to be neutral on an issue where there isn’t much neutral ground.

For one thing, we don’t reduce our coverage of this complicated issue to a single label. Julia and other Times reporters try to be detailed, descriptive and as accurate as possible in writing about immigrants in a whole range of different situations.

But in referring in general terms to the issue of people living in the United States without legal papers, we do think the phrases “illegal immigrants” and “illegal immigration” are accurate, factual and as neutral as we can manage under the circumstances. It is, in fact, illegal to enter, live or work in this country without valid documents. Some people worry that we are labeling immigrants as “criminals” — but we’re not. “Illegal” is not a synonym for “criminal.” (One can even park “illegally,” though it’s not a criminal offense.)

Proposed alternatives like “undocumented” seem really to be euphemisms – as though this were just a bureaucratic mix-up that can easily be remedied. Often those phrases seem deliberately chosen to try to soften or minimize the significance of the lack of legal status. We avoid those euphemisms just as we avoid phrases that tend to cast a more pejorative light on immigrants. For example, we steer clear of the shorthand “illegals” and also the word “aliens,” both of which we think have needlessly negative connotations.

The AP Stylebook advises against using this shorthand, too. Last year, the Stylebook updated its definition of “illegal immigrant” to make it more nuanced. As I reported at the time:

Prior to the update, the Stylebook said “illegal immigrant” should be used “to describe someone who has entered the country illegally.” Now, it says the term should also be used to describe anyone who “resides in a country in criminal or civil violation of immigration law.” Additionally, it says that “living in the country without legal permission” is an acceptable variation of “illegal immigrant.”

News organizations such as the San Antonio Express-News and the Miami Herald have stopped using the term.

Vargas has been drawing attention to the use of “illegal immigrant” since he came out as an undocumented immigrant in a New York Times magazine essay last July.

“Friday was very stressful because the speech was so personal. My chief message to my fellow journalists, at bottom, was and remains: I did not come out, I just you let you in,” he said via email. “We must stop dehumanizing an entire group of people — actions are illegal, not people, never people. Calling people ‘illegal immigrants’ underscores the largely simplistic nature in which we report on and fully contextualize this issue to our readers.”

Related: Jose Antonio Vargas crosses picket line to deliver charged speech on immigration to journalists (Huffington Post) | Storify of Vargas’ ONA speech (Marissa Evans)

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.

  • Thomas Pineros Shields

    Good solid piece. I am curious about the claim above by Corbett at the NY Times that “It is, in fact, illegal to enter, live or work in this
    country without valid documents.” I have spoken to several lawyers and read last year’s supreme court decision on Arizona where it is stated that living in this country without valid documents is not a crime. Here is the quote from the Supreme Court:

    “As a general rule, it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain in the United States.” (US vs. Arizona, 2012, Kennedy writing opinion of majority excerpt from 2(c).)

    I agree that the alternative (undocumented) is imperfect – but I think we need to acknowledge that the language is failing us and we are choosing between imperfect terms instead of suggesting that “illegal” is accurate.

  • Michael Barton

    That is total nonsense.

  • Em Sedano

    “Illegal immigrant” is completely unfair, in as much as to be “illegal” a person must be found that by an immigration judge, or caught in the act by an ICE employee at the border. “Illegal immigration” is relatively neutral. Unless the Times’ editorial opinion supercedes the Constitutional guarantee of equal protection under law, then the Times is wrong to convict these folks without a trial. The Times is absolutely reliable in describing such as “alleged child rapist” Sandusky to protect the identical principle.

  • Ravi Patel

    Many “Undocumented immigrants” live in constant fear that at any moment the federal government will swoop in and destroy the only life they have ever known. We need a leader to fight for their civil rights as Dr Martin Luther King inspired by Gandhi ji did for greatest civil rights issues in the US. The sad part is “Undocumented immigrants” are “Legal Slaves” in US who cannot even fight for their own rights… Please read and share with your friends

  • Anonymous

    I liked Vargas saying “I am not coming out [as an ''illegal immigrant'' - scare quotes added], i am letting you in….” GREAT WAY to phrase, could be used for gay stories too, ”i am not coming out, i am letting YOU GUYS in…;” re Anderson Cooper news item. a very positive way to say it. LOVE IT

  • Anonymous

    The New York-based project has correspondents and staff reporters in ***Taiwan, Los Angeles, and Washington, and plans “to expand quickly to other locations”. WHO is the reporter based in Taipei? re ”The New York-based project has correspondents and staff reporters in London, Paris, Taiwan, Los Angeles, and Washington, and plans “to expand quickly to other locations”.”

  • Poynter

    Thanks for reading the piece and taking the time to write, Patrick. You bring up a good point about the term “non-citizen.” I think it’s implied that journalists mean a non-U.S. citizen, but agree that it would be good to clarify this in stories.

    ~Mallary Tenore

  • Kevin Hall

    That’s interesting. If a story isn’t about illegal immigration, it makes sense to use “non-U.S. citizen.”
    None of the accurate semantics, though, will satisfy those who want people to think of them as “undocumented Americans,” which is just a flat-out lie.
    For the record, most people I know don’t think of illegal immigrants as those who “came” illegally, but rather as those who “are here” illegally. The relatively few who cross the border illegally also tend to come and go back across those same borders, and don’t necessarily have any intention to become U.S. citizens.
    There is a third position in this debate that hasn’t been mentioned, and that is the feelings of immigrants who have jumped through the hoops to do it legally. Some don’t appreciate illegal immigrants’ effort to wave a magic wand to make those who did it wrong seem equal to those who did the work to do it right.

  • Mack Peterson

    But The Times do use euphemistic terms like “pro-life” (and “pro-choice” for that matter) as opposed to the more accurate “anti-abortion” or “pro-access to abortion.” I do not necessarily think that they should use these euphemisms, but I definitely don’t think they should use lazy and inaccurate terminology like “illegal immigrants” as a catch all phrase. Here is my problem with the terminology: Go out and ask 10 average people what an “illegal immigrant” is. All of them will say something along the lines of “someone who comes to this country illegally.” About half of the people that are considered “illegal immigrants” came to this country legally. They have over-stayed their visas. Corbet says that the language does not contribute to the criminalization of these people because “illegal is not synonymous with criminal.” True, but can you think of any group of people suspected of having committed a civil offense that are labeled as “illegal (fill in the blank)?” Is it the New York Time’s policy to refer to anyone suspected of having run a red light (or anyone who has in fact run a red light) as “illegal drivers?” How about people accused of having participated in an act of civil disobedience at a protest. Does the Times call them “illegal protestors?”

  • Daniel

    Actually the term that a lot dreamers describe themselves as “Undocumented Americans” because they say they feel American. Vargas also said he is part of the “21st Century Underground Rail Road” because of people that helped him obtain driver licenses and social security numbers. Now isn’t that great and a sign of respect for American History.

  • Patrick Comey

    Thank you for a well-written discussion of the issue regarding the terminology used to describe persons in the U.S. illegally. I’m quite familiar with the issue since I was a Special Agent (investigator) for the INS & ICE for nearly 33 years. Interestingly, the words “alien” and “immigrant” are both defined in the Immigration & Nationality Act, a law passed in the 50′s (with many updates since). Some people in the U.S. seem to have an aversion to the use of the word “alien,” most likely because of too many science fiction movies. Using the word “alien” is not a judgement and “illegal foreigner” sounds too stilted. In an effort to be sensitive though, I sometimes use the phrase, “alien illegally in the U.S.,” or “foreigner illegally in the U.S.” Somehow the word “immigrant” is not precise enough. You’re quite write that “undocumented” is a euphemism because most aliens (foreigners) have some sort of documents, just not documents allowing them to live in the U.S. legally.

    On a side note, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the use of the terminology “non-citizen” to describe persons presumably not citizens of the U.S. This term is quite annoying to me because virtually all such persons are citizens, just not of the U.S. Why not simply say, “not a citizen of the U.S.,” “non-U.S. citizen,” or “foreigner?”

  • Peggy Morton

    Where are the stories about illegal drivers, or better yet the absurdity of our immigration system?

  • Poynter

    Hi Virginia,

    Good question. Vargas referred to himself as an “undocumented immigrant” in his New York Times magazine essay last year. I’ve emailed him your question so that he can respond to it directly.

    ~Mallary Tenore

  • Dan Berman

    I agree with The Times on this. Journalists shouldn’t use euphemisms. Just as they shouldn’t use “right to life” to describe people against abortion. It amounts to taking sides in controversial issues. The media should avoind stop caving into one or the other just because people complain.

  • Anonymous

    I eagerly await seeing Nick Cage called an “illegal taxpayer” in an upcoming report or meth cooks called “illegal pharmacists.”