April 22, 2012
Questioning the “I” word: illegal, undocumented, or other…?

When the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments next week on Arizona’s controversial anti-immigrant bill, SB 1070, headlines across the country will no doubt contain language referring to immigrant communities as “illegal.” 

"Illegal immigrant" is currently acceptable in AP Style, in The New York Times and, as a result, in most newspapers in the United States. However the notion that this is a proper, or even legally accurate term, is in question. Not only have organizers within the undocumented community spoken out against the use of “illegal,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor used the term “undocumented” in the December 2009, marking the Court’s first use of the term. 

I use the term “undocumented” and do not support the term “illegal” when referring to a person in the immigrant community. I feel I owe an explanation why I choose not to use illegal—both for transparency within this project and also because my rationale might add something to a debate that is about much more than semantics. Here is why:

In the two years that I have reported on immigration issues in North Carolina, I have only once used the term illegal. In 2010, I was writing about the DREAM Act just before the Senate voted it down. I interviewed two undocumented women at length, wove data about the bill around their personal stories, and pitched it to two news organizations. The story first ran with few edits in Reese News, a UNC-Chapel Hill digital publication, and used the term “undocumented.” A day later a shorter version ran in the News & Observerbut contained the term “illegal” more than a dozen times in the edited story.

I remember sitting in the news room, arguing with editor about the accuracy and appropriateness of the term. But it was not negotiable: use “illegal” or the story will NOT run, I was told. At the time, I decided to let them publish it because I believed the content, the facts and sources, in the story superseded the I-word issue. But looking back, I feel I should have fought harder. Here’s why.

Just before the News & Observer story ran, I contacted the undocumented sources to tell them to expect the term “illegal.” I told them it was out of my control and definitely not my preference. Though they understood, I could tell they were hurt. The response I received was the kind you would expect from someone who had just been called any other derogatory term. They were not upset with me, rather the system that allowed this. But this rattled me, and led to constant second guessing. 

As a journalist you have a responsibility to the community you are covering. And when that community asks to not be called illegal, the media should listen. In 2011, the Associated Press responded half-heartedly by allowing the verbose “living in the country without legal permission” variation. But it is also a journalist’s job to be concise. And, to me, a seven word euphemism is not the best remedy. 

Other arguments against “illegal” is that is is dehumanizing, that illegal should modify an act, not a person. I titled my recent documentary, “Illegal,” specifically to challenge the concept of calling a person “illegal” by detailing the personal life of Manuel Vazquez, a shy and likable 20-something DREAM Act-eligible youth. His parents brought him to the U.S. when he was a child, overstaying a tourist visa, to provide a better life for him and his siblings. They are hard working, they are tax payers, and the only illegal act that Manuel ever committed was an act of civil disobedience during a protest for immigration reform. 

So if not illegal, what are the alternatives? Kevin Johnson, Dean of the law school at the University of California, Davis, told NPR in 2010 that the word illegal may not be legally correct and prefers “technically accurate terms that are known and used in common parlance in law.” His preference: undocumented and non-citizens. 

I’ve considered writing a letter to the Associated Press for some time now to ask that the term “illegal immigrant” no longer be accepted as proper AP Style. Not only because of my experience with the News & Observer, and not just because of the legal inaccuracies (being in the U.S. without authorization is not a criminal offense), but because the immigrant community demands it. 

The English language is fluid, and constantly evolving. If it was not for social movements in decades past, we would not have gone from “colored” to “negro" in the 1920s and 30s, from "negro" to "black" in the 1960s, and to including "African-American" in the 1980s. 

From my experiences reporting on undocumented communities, journalism stands once again at a crossroads with its use of the term “illegal.” Do we continue to alienate a rapidly growing community within the United States, or do we accept change and move the conversation from whether we should change, to how can we change? 

No doubt there will be opposition, but there will always be and always has been resistance to change. The media made the right choices dropping colored and negro. Will we, as 21st century journalists, be in the right side of history with illegal?

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