December 19, 2013

In the comments section of Jose Antonio Vargas’ 2012 Time article about the term “illegal immigrant,” a reader with the handle “Calipenguin” voiced a concern: “People like Vargas are trying to re-invent the English language to ‘soften’ the image of illegal aliens so that one day we can refer to them as ‘undocumented Americans.’ “

Hey, Calipenguin, did you catch “Good Morning America” Tuesday? “A group called Define American has unveiled a new immigration symbol along with a video of undocumented Americans reciting the Pledge of Allegiance,” the morning show reported in a brief segment.

“Good Morning America” spokesperson Heather Riley tells Poynter via email the show “didn’t use that term in an editorial way, we were explaining the term that a group of people used to describe themselves.” Via email, Vargas, who founded Define American, tells Poynter he’s fine with that: “GMA and ABC News simply used the term to describe people,” he writes, noting the show didn’t put quotation marks around it on the Web.

Vargas has campaigned for a while now against the term “illegal immigrant” and says the term “undocumented American” is “definitely something we will advocate at Define American, along with ‘undocumented immigrant’ and ‘unauthorized immigrant.’ “

I couldn’t find a lot of mainstream media uses of the term. Mark Steyn used it as a joke in 2007. The Miami Herald quoted an activist named Gaby Pacheco using the term to refer to herself this past April. And The Los Angeles Times used it in July to refer to Edward Snowden.

Vargas, who revealed in a 2011 New York Times Magazine story that he entered the country using fake documents when he was 12, says in an email interview that he began to embrace the term “undocumented American” during a photo shoot for a Time cover story in 2012.

“I don’t remember who, but during the video testimonials, someone started calling himself/herself ‘an undocumented American,’ ” Vargas wrote. “Then, one by one, we all started saying ‘undocumented American.’ It was a very powerful moment.”

I asked Vargas what he liked about the term.

“Immigration is a very complex issue,” he replied. “I’ve been to about 40 states in two and a half years — meeting countless undocumented people. I’ve gotten to know the complexity of the issue and the people who are directly impacted like me.”

He elaborated on that in his email:

So how do you accurately describe someone like Marco Antonio Quiroga? Marco is 26. He was born in Peru but came to the U.S. at around 1 year old, which means he’s been in the U.S. for 25 years. Or how do you describe someone like Jennifer Angerita? She’s 25 and has been in the U.S. for 24 years. They’re both undocumented — they’re here in the U.S. illegally and without authorization — but America is all they know. This is their home. They’re American except they don’t have papers. Both Marco and Jennifer are featured in The Pledge video, and they are both undocumented Americans. I came to this country at age 12. I’m almost 33. I am an American, I just don’t have the right documents to show you.

The Associated Press changed its style on the term “illegal immigrant” in April. Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll told Poynter at the time that the term was “kind of a lazy device that those of use who type for a living can become overly reliant on as a shortcut.” In its updated guidance, AP urged its writers to “specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where.” People “who were brought into the country as children should not be described as having immigrated illegally,” the new entry says.

Other news organizations changed or modified their styles after that, including The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. The New York Times changed its style on the term slightly in April: It still allows the term but urged staffers to “consider alternatives when appropriate to explain the specific circumstances of the person in question.”

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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