A policy change on illegal immigration terminology

“When will the Express-News start being honest with readers,” asked one of those readers, Ben Marshall, “and stop referring to illegal immigrants as undocumented immigrants, or just immigrants? They are purely illegal immigrants. And for those who don’t understand illegal, it means that it isn’t legal.”

And, in a letter to the editor printed Saturday, another reader, Len Czarnecki, wrote the definitions of three words, “illegal,” “trespass” and “immigrant,” and added: “Those of you in the media who report on this topic need to get your facts correct and use the proper terminology.”

Such complaints aren’t new and haven’t been ignored by the Express-News.

First, Mr. Marshall, the Express-News no longer refers to people who enter this country illegally, or who overstay legal visas, as “undocumented.” The newspaper’s Ethics and Practices Committee two years ago adopted the term “unauthorized immigrants” to describe people who don’t have the proper paperwork to live here.

It doesn’t have the bite of illegal immigrant or illegal alien, the federal nomenclature, but it doesn’t have the sanitizing effect of “undocumented,” which implies that said immigrant just misplaced his papers. Which really isn’t accurate because most of them have some documentation — just not the ones they need to be here legally.

So does that make them illegal? This is where it gets dicey, not for people like Marshall and Czarnecki, but for people in my business. We don’t call someone a murderer or an extortionist, even if he confessed, until he is proved guilty. So it’s the “accused” killer or “alleged” thief until a judge and jury take away the adjective.

So why shouldn’t a Mexican who wades the Rio Grande and is nabbed by the Border Patrol have the same constitutional protections? We don’t call folks on this side of the river who hire immigrants with a wink at federal law “illegal” employers.

That said, Express-News Editor Robert Rivard asked our ethics committee to revisit this terminology issue — to provide clarity for our people who write and edit stories on immigration reform, illegal immigration and related topics. Our panel, after much discussion, decided to replace the “Unauthorized immigrant” entry in our Ethics and Practices Policy with:

Illegal immigration: The movement of people into the United States who do not have proper documentation.

As with other violations of the law, all suggestions that individuals have broken immigration laws must be attributed. The correct way to describe a person’s immigration status, when such information is relevant, is to say a person is in the country illegally – citing the source of your information. For example: “Police said the man is in the United States illegally,” or, “Border Patrol agents said they detained 40 men who were in the country illegally.”

Do not use “illegal” as a noun.

This incorporates some objections to the previously suggested language, yet it is broad enough to allow reporters and editors flexibility in the wording we use in covering what is a decidedly emotional issue. The change is effective immediately.

“We know the semantical debate won’t come to an end with this change,” Rivard said.

Marshall, Czarnecki and most readers, of course, will call the unfortunate souls of the Third World who have been lured here by jobs, as generations of immigrants have, whatever they want to call them. But ours is not a “politically correct” stance; it’s what we feel is the right stance, legally and journalistically.

This column was originally published in the San Antonio Express-News on July 4, 2010.

Comments are closed.