Jose Antonio Vargas 'disappointed' NYT not budging on 'illegal immigrant'

The Atlantic Wire | The New York Times

Jose Antonio Vargas will continue trying to persuade The New York Times to stop using the term "illegal immigrant," he tells The Atlantic Wire's John Hudson, even though New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote Tuesday that she supports her employer's decision to stick with the term. Sullivan and Vargas met to discuss the issue after he raised it at the Online News Association convention.

Her job, Sullivan notes, does not grant her the ability to set Times style. But "illegal immigrant," she writes, strikes her as fair:

It is clear and accurate; it gets its job done in two words that are easily understood. The same cannot be said of the most frequently suggested alternatives – “unauthorized,” “immigrants without legal status,” “undocumented.” Undocumented, as the immigration reporter Julia Preston noted in an interview with me, has “a new currency” because of a federal policy change involving immigrants who came here as children 15 and under, so the word may be useful in that context.

The Times won't use the terms "illegals" or "illegal aliens," Sullivan says. Vargas' response:

I am disappointed at her assessment. The headline of the blog, to me, is most revealing: "Readers Won’t Benefit if Times Bans the Term ‘Illegal Immigrant.’" Which readers? Readers who want and need to understand the complex and evolving nature of immigration in America, how an immigrant can be out-of-status one week and have status the next? Readers from immigrant families (Latinos and Asians, particularly) who are likely to personally know someone who is undocumented and is offended that their friends and relatives are continually marginalized and dehumanized?

Phil Corbett, The Times' associate managing editor for standards, told my coworker Mallary Tenore the paper doesn't "reduce our coverage of this complicated issue to a single label."

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.)

Last November the Associated Press announced it is sticking with the term in some cases as well.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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