April 6, 2021

The headlines declare that a “surge” of immigrants is “flooding” across the southern border of the United States. These observations are as predictable as the seasons. The Washington Post noted that an uptick in illegal crossings happens as winter turns to spring, then declines when summer makes the desert hazardous.

Journalists need to exercise better judgment, even if repeating an official. Reports in late March used the language of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas even when not directly quoting him. Much as “unarmed Black man” has become shorthand that reinforces the bias journalists might be trying to counter, words that describe immigration can further stereotypes against people of color.

Otto Santa Ana, an academic who published “Brown Tide Rising” in 2002, decried the metaphorical language that promoted anti-immigration initiatives of the 1990s.

The hyperbole in headlines might make a news consumer think of immigrants from Mexico, but the Pew Research Center found that a larger percentage of overall immigrants to the United States were born in Asia. And 10% come from Europe, Canada and elsewhere in North America.

It’s also key that people who are in the United States illegally didn’t necessarily enter without documentation through the southern border. The Center for Migration Studies found that overstaying a temporary visa is the primary reason an immigrant is illegally in the U.S.

This leads us to conflicting guidance about how to describe immigrants. From the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ cultural competency guide: “Phrases such as ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘illegal alien’ replace complex and everchanging legal circumstances with an unspecified assumption of guilt. … Neither of these terms clarify if a person came here legally, and their visa expired, or if a person is in a state of legal limbo, waiting for paperwork to be processed, nor does it explain if that person — regardless of whether they are an adult or child — has been processed in an immigration court, and is awaiting a decision regarding their application for asylum.”

The Associated Press Stylebook advises journalists to “use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person.” And AP discourages the use of “alien” or “undocumented (except when quoting people or government documents that use these terms).”

The responsible thing to do when reporting on immigration — and other stories — is to be as precise as possible. Describe the country of origin for the immigrants. Also be explicit about their status. Have they overstayed their visas? Are they awaiting adjudication on asylum claims? Are some members of the family U.S. citizens?

Be wary of language that unnecessarily dehumanizes our sources and perpetuates unconscious bias against groups of people. Journalists must recognize our power to shape the public discourse. Echoing officials without skepticism can be dangerous, especially when those experts use language intended to create distance.

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Doris Truong is responsible for overseeing Poynter’s teaching across platforms. Her diversity portfolio includes helping newsrooms better cover their communities and providing the resources to…
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