The debate over immigration language

Read the online comments accompanying any story on immigration and you get a taste of the impassioned public debate over what to do about those who may be unlawfully in the country unlawfully. For news organizations, there’s a secondary discussion heating up over what to call them.

The dilemma is not new. Most newsrooms settled on terminology long ago. Many adhere to the widely followed guidance of the Associated Press, which prefers “illegal immigrant.” The Post’s internal stylebook says “undocumented immigrant” also may be used.

Discussion was renewed recently when Leo E. Laurence, a San Diego journalist and member of the diversity committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, wrote a column for the organization’s magazine urging “undocumented” rather than “illegal.”

“Simply put, only a judge, not a journalist, can say that someone is an ‘illegal,'” he wrote. Laurence, who was offering a personal view that SPJ has not endorsed, soon ended up in a spirited on-air disagreement with Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, who suggested that refusing to use the term “illegal” is “political correctness gone mad.” The exchange sparked robust debate in the blogosphere.

Among journalists, Laurence is not alone in his view.

“We prefer ‘undocumented immigrant,’ ” said Michele Salcedo, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She said that many people enter the United States legally documented but “for one reason or another they overstay their visa limit and become ‘undocumented,’ as it were.” The term “undocumented” is “more inclusive and accurate,” said Salcedo, an editor in the Washington bureau of the Associated Press.

She also agreed with Laurence that calling someone “illegal” is a judgment that courts, not journalists, should make. “In this country, if you are accused of a crime, whether it’s a misdemeanor or a felony, you’re entitled to your day in court,” she said.

Donald M. Kerwin Jr., a vice president at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said “illegal immigrant” is semantically wrong. While it is proper to say someone broke the law, he said, “you can’t call them an ‘illegal’ person.”

Many readers think these kinds of distinctions are absurd. They argue that entering the country without documents is, on its face, illegal. And if the legal documents expired, they say, foreigners are here in violation of the law.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tighter controls on immigration, rejects “undocumented” as “gibberish.” Many foreigners enter with forged or stolen documents, he said, adding: “You could call them ‘falsely documented,’ but then you get into really unwieldy terminology.”

He also said it is “sophistry” to argue that the term “illegal immigrant” can be used only after a formal legal judgment. “Getting a parking ticket isn’t a crime. But it’s illegal,” he said.

Krikorian also thinks illegal “alien” is acceptable, noting that federal statutes use that word to refer to foreigners who entered unlawfully, as well as those here legally on a so-called “green card.” Most mainstream news organizations, including The Post, forbid using “alien” on grounds that secondary dictionary definitions include pejorative words like “strange.” Likewise, The Post and others prohibit using “illegal” as a noun (“he’s an illegal”).

Reaching agreement on alternative terminology would be challenging.

“The trouble is that when you start trying to come up with alternatives, they’re all problematic,” said Roy Beck, a former journalist and founder of NumbersUSA, a group that favors limiting legal and illegal immigration. He said even the term “immigrant” is often misused when applied to those who come legally on a temporary worker visa.

Beck said a substitute for “illegal immigrant” might be the more cumbersome “unlawfully present foreign national.” Kerwin raised the possibility of “unauthorized immigrant.”

A review of Post terminology in stories during the second half of 2010 shows that “undocumented immigrant” was used about six times more frequently than “illegal immigrant.”

The Post would be wise to join the discussion over the best vocabulary, even if it ended up reinforcing its current directives.

Tinkering with the terminology risks propelling news organizations into the white-hot debate over immigration policy. Those that abandoned “illegal immigrant,” for example, surely would be accused of softening the jargon to favor advocates of less restrictive immigration laws.

But any conversation about accuracy is worth having. And this is not just about semantics. Sometimes the terms used in describing an issue are so powerful they can affect the course of the debate, especially when selected by journalists with as much influence as those at The Post.

This column was originally published in the Washington Post on Jan. 7, 2011.

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