‘Illegal Immigrant’: What Term to Use Becomes a Debate

LOS ANGELES (Los Angeles Times/MCT) -

As lawmakers in Washington debate the possibility of legalization for 11 million immigrants, a more basic question has emerged in the nation’s newsrooms and beyond — what to call those immigrants.

Most news organizations have long used the term “illegal immigrant,” which some people find offensive. They prefer “undocumented,” arguing that “illegal” is dehumanizing and lumps border crossers with serious criminals. Some even view “illegal immigrant” as tantamount to hate speech and refuse to utter it, referring only to the “I word.”

This week, The Associated Press revised its influential stylebook and jettisoned “illegal immigrant,” reversing a decision from six months earlier. The AP did not offer an exact replacement, instead recommending that writers fully describe a person’s immigration status.

The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, which have been discussing the question internally for months, have indicated that they will soon issue their own edicts.

A stylebook update is typically an esoteric affair of interest only to journalists and linguists, but this one has prompted a wider discussion featuring claims of political correctness gone wild and relief over the banishment of a disfavored term.

For immigrants, especially those who have lived without papers, the issue is personal.

“When one is told that one is illegal, it really creates this identity of being a criminal,” said Carlos Amador, 28, who works with young immigrants at the Dream Resource Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But the reality is, myself, my parents, those in my community who are in this situation of not having papers — all we want is to contribute back into this country, to be accepted and welcomed.”

Instead of using “undocumented immigrant” or an alternative descriptor like “unauthorized,” the new AP stylebook entry recommends avoiding that sentence construction altogether.

The Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, which supports deportation and opposes legalization, reacted to the AP’s decision by adopting a new term of its own: “illegal invader.” “Immigrant” should be reserved for people who came to this country legally, said William Gheen, the group’s president.

“It’s the most run-amok PC thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Gheen said of abandoning the “illegal immigrant” usage. “It’s political correctness on steroids.”

At the Los Angeles Times, “illegal alien” was the preferred usage from 1979 until the newspaper’s style guide changed in 1995, said Henry Fuhrmann, the assistant managing editor in charge of copy desks.

Since then, writers have been directed to use “illegal immigrants,” avoiding “illegal aliens” and “illegals.”