IMPRESSIVE is the debate sparked by “journalist-turned-activist” Jose Antonio Vargas when he requested that the New York Times and AP stop using the word “illegal” in reference to undocumented immigrants. Not only did it prompt the open reflection from the Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, it also gathered attention from The Huffington Post, ABC News and, apparently, quite a number of academics.
In a story titled, “Linguists Tell New York Times That ‘Illegal’ Is Neither ‘Neutral’ nor ‘Accurate,’” ABC News reported this week that a group of 24 linguistic scholars released a statement condemning the usage of “illegal.” Interesting, I find, is their comparison of the “Drop the I-Word” campaign to Linguistic Anthrpology:
The “Drop the I-Word” campaign resonates with a central tenet of Linguistic Anthropology:language is a not merely a passive way of referring to or describing things in the world, but a crucial form of social action.
As for the Huffington Post, a story about this debate last week added that a Fox News Latino poll from March 2012 indicated that nearly half of all Latino voters polled found the term “illegal immigrant” to be offensive.
Sullivan responded to the chatter earlier this morning. In her post titled, “Readers Won’t Benefit if Times Bans the Term ‘Illegal Immigrant,’” Sullivan endorsed the term. In her words:
I see no advantage for Times readers in a move away from the paper’s use of the phrase “illegal immigrant.” It is clear and accurate; it gets its job done in two words that are easily understood.
The public editor’s words drew a frustrated response from Vargas:
I am disappointed at her assessment. The headline of the blog, to me, is most revealing: “Readers Won’t Benefit if Times Bans the Term ‘Illegal Immigrant.’” Which readers? Readers who want and need to understand the complex and evolving nature of immigration in America, how an immigrant can be out-of-status one week and have status the next? Readers from immigrant families (Latinos and Asians, particularly) who are likely to personally know someone who is undocumented and is offended that their friends and relatives are continually marginalized and dehumanized?
As for the Associated Press, they seemed more inclined for change. As printed in the HuffPo article:
“’Illegal immigrant’ had been the preferred term at AP,” Associated Press Director of Media Relations Paul Colford said in an email to several news organizations. “It ceased being the preferred term last year.” And, while the AP still uses “illegal immigrant” as a general term, Colford wrote, the agency’s reporters try to detail circumstances rather than categorizing people.
In my original post on the topic, I discussed how, as an immigration reporter, the term “illegal” had put me at odds with the values of the community I was documenting. How it offended them, how it felt antiquated. I think for those on the ground the issue much more clear. To those charged with high profile decision-making, the pressure to reject change may be a safer bet, at least for now.
A final side note, multimedia journalist Mimi Schiffman (my @UNCJSchool classmate) recently produced a well made documentary short for the NYT Lens Blog about an undocumented student struggling to pay for college. A debate ensued, however, over the accompanying text story’s use of the term “illegal,” which was not the author’s original intention—she prefers undocumented. And of the seven Times readers/viewers that commented, all were supportive of the story, and one felt it necessary to criticize the Times directly.
I’m disappointed by the NY Times for using the term “illegal” to refer to him and to other undocumented immigrants. (I know Mimi and this was not her choice of words.) No human being is “illegal.”
Despite the lack of immediate change, I would not expect this debate to go away time soon.