The New York Times explains why it still uses 'illegal immigrant'

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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)

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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