AP Drops 'Illegal Immigrant'; Language For A New Reality
April 4, 2013 1:14 p.m.
Lilia Velasquez is a San Diego attorney specializing in immigration and nationality law.
Grant Barrett is co-host of public radio's "A Way With Words."
Related Story: AP Drops 'Illegal Immigrant'; Language For A New Reality
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Thursday, April 4. The Associated Press announced this week that it would adopt a policy followed for years by many news organizations, including KPBS, of not using the term illegal immigrant. The rationale given by the AP style book is that illegal can refer to an action but not to a person. This change comes as lawmakers in Washington are working to hammer out a plan to reform the nation's immigration policy. Many of those who might be called illegal now could be taking the first steps on a pathway to citizenship by the end of the year. So is this suggested change in language, substantive, practical, or accurate, or merely politically correct? Joining me to talk about the media's move away from the term illegal immigrant are my guests, Lilia Vasquez specializes in immigration and nationality law.
VASQUEZ: It's good to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Grant Barrett is cohost of "A Way With Words." Good to see you.
BARRETT: Hey there.
CAVANAUGH: You deal with people who are trying to get green cards, get status in the U.S. How do you react to the term illegal immigrant?
VASQUEZ: I actually am very happy about the change of events. I think we're trying to keep up with the times. Terms that we used to use in the old days are no longer politically correct. Back in 1954, the immigration service conducted "Operation Wetback." That was in 1954. Does the government use the term wetback? Absolutely not. It is offensive. So we have seen or the overs, and I have been in practice for 33 years, changes in the language in terms of describing a person who is in the United States without proper documents.
CAVANAUGH: What is the underlying message? Or is there an underlying message to the term illegal immigrant to people who are here illegally? Is there a context to that particular phrase that is offensive or inaccurate?
VASQUEZ: I'm not sure that we can say that it's inaccurate. But again, we are living now in a kinder and gentler society, and politicians have to be very careful about what words they're going to use if they want to appeal to a state your name constituency. It's not more accurate. If you can say that a person is illegal, how can a person be illegal? But what about their status? Can you say they're here unlawfully present? It's a question of semantics, but I think it's just a more politically correct term to use today.
CAVANAUGH: Let's talk about where this term came from, Grant. How did we start calling people illegal?
BARRETT: Well, it first starts in the 1930s when Palestine was a mace that a lot of people were moving. And the question was, did all these Jews from around the world deserve to go to Palestine, and were they legal or illegal? What's their status there? And this was an issue discussed in all the newspapers of the day and the radio programs of the day, and in the salons and parlors and living rooms of the day. So that language got involved with politics right there in the 1930s. In the 1950s and '60s, we have people who are coming to this country to work legitimately, and some of them not, but they were coming here to work. And there were all these procedures. What status should we give them? And the language was reinvigorated. Illegal immigrant and illegal immigration became a topic of discussion. 1960s, '70s, the 2000s, and there's a Republican strategist by the name of Frank Luntz. He's an expert with language. He knows how to take at a conversation and turn it toward his goals. He issued a memo, and it was literally about the language of immigration. And in this document, he uses the word illegal more than 140 times. And it's this document that starts the debate that we're talking about today where the right, the conservatives, framed it as a question of are you going to allow these illegal people in this country? And if you speak up on behalf of these illegals, therefore you must be a criminal coddler! So it was a clever way of framing the discussion so if you discuss immigration in this country, it's a question of what we will do about illegal people.
CAVANAUGH: So your explanation makes it clear that this is an intentionally politically charged phrase.
CAVANAUGH: This is the rationale for not using it that many organizations are taking. Let's hear from KPBS Director of News Suzanne Marmion. She spoke about why KPBS avoids both the terms illegal immigrant and undocumented immigrant.
MARMION: KPBS decided that both terms illegal immigrant and undocumented immigrant have become politicized. And they were distracting from our stories. People would hear one term or the other and immediately make assumptions about where we fell on the issues and the debate. So we decided to avoid both.
CAVANAUGH: Now, the AP also suggests avoiding undocumented immigrant. Do you agree that both of these terms are equally highly politicized?
BARRETT: Oh, it's a mess! I could talk about it from a linguistic point of view and from a stylistic point of view. There's a little medic conversation that needs to take place. The AP has reversed itself just as recently as last fall, they issued a memo to its subscribing news outlets that said they would allow the terms illegal immigrant and illegal immigration. And they got so much pushback to change this that they changed it yet again. The AP is powerful only because so many organizations use its guide. But they don't have any particular linguistic expertise. They go with the flow, behind the curve usually, and sometimes without basis. If you look at the memo that AP put out this week, they even suggested that again may come up in the next six months or a year. They just know it's going to happen again. So this is step 2. We're going to look for step 3 and 4.
CAVANAUGH: Let me get your feeling on undocumented immigrant.
BARRETT: Well, it depends on what you're talking about. There are many ways to be in this country without being exactly to the letter of the law. And one of them is to overstay a visa. Are you undocumented? Well, you have ID, you have a driver's license, a student ID, a bus pass. What is undocumented? It's such a vague term. I would avoid it personally in my own writing because it doesn't tell me anything!
CAVANAUGH: And what are your thoughts on that term?
VASQUEZ: Well, it's humbling for me to admit that at one point I did say that the term undocumented immigrant was the better term to use. And I was using that in the context of illegal alien versus undocumented immigrant, so I thought that it was a softer term. It's a person that has no documents. Clearly you can say a person is here in violation of law, has no papers. But again, the terminology is very important because the media sends a message as to how they feel about this particular person. And when people use illegal alien, they're dehumanizing that person. If something happens to them, oh, well, they're illegal! So we don't have to feel too bad about what happened to them. And I think that's really important that people that use it, how are they using it? What is the message they're trying to send about this particular person?
CAVANAUGH: We got a message on our fronteras website from a writer, Allen Wayne Necessary, and his comment was "illegal immigrant is exactly what they are, they broke the law to get here and they are immigrants. Quit trying to be politically correct. What's next? Can't we call someone a serial killer?" As you can tell from that comment, dropping the phrase illegal immigrant is the kind of semantic change that can infuriate people. Why do you think people feel so strongly about things like this?
BARRETT: To be completely frank about it, usually people who argue that illegal immigrant is the accurate term don't like immigration period. That's what it boils down to. We can see this again and again and again when you examine these large bodies of text, we can look at the language, we can look at the sentiment there, are the feelings and find that it's a mask for other things. It's a proxy for their larger argument. And that comment is wrong. He's actually factually incorrect. And we can demonstrate this because there are many ways to be in this country and not have your status 100% verified. For example, if I'm a student from Mexico and here on a student visa and I'm required to have 20 hours of classes a semester, but the school cancels a class because of a lack of funding, I am not up to status. Am I illegal? No, I'm not. I am allowed to be here. And I will get a letter from the officials that says we recognize that you are out of status, please let us know when this problem is remedied. So not illegal, but also not up to status. What is the language you use for that person? That's not right. It's not illegal.
CAVANAUGH: Lilia, you use the term illegal aliens as one to avoid. Former U.S. attorney in San Diego Peter Nunez says that is the only correct term because we're referring to people who are not U.S. citizens who have entered the country illegally or have overstayed a visa. What do you think of that argument?
VASQUEZ: Well, I think that with the respect to Mr. Nunez, he's living in the old times. He also referred to the constitution using the term alien. Well, the constitution was written in 1787. So we have to take that with a grain of salt. Again, it's clear that he is very anti-immigrant. He feels that the country being overridden by undocumented workers and that the government is not doing anything about it. So it has to do in that context with the personal politics of that individual. So he has chosen to use that term and to say that is the correct term because that's how I feel.
CAVANAUGH: I remember reading a great deal when there are stories of something that happens to people who are here illegally, they're exposed to pesticides, or they're not getting treatment for medical conditions that they have, a lot of the response is, well, they're here illegally, so what do they expect? That's what you hear over and over again. Now, isn't that term illegal that elicits that response?
BARRETT: It totally authorizes the speaker to discount all the levels of humanity of the person. That's what's happening here, literally. If I say that you're illegal, that means I don't have to listen to you, I don't have to give you due process, I don't have to acknowledge you or even -- I can avoid you, I can try not to encounter you. I can dismiss you and put you out of my mind, and not deal with the larger issue of why you're here, what is this problem, how is the government going to solve it, what am I personally going to do to solve it? It's one of those thing where is this black and white language like illegal and legal describes the ability be to think coherently and have an intellectual debate about it that moves the conversation forward.
CAVANAUGH: Let me give you an example of the way The Associated Press would like to see news stories written. Instead of reporting the Border Patrol agents arrested two suspected illegal immigrants, it would read Border Patrol agents arrested two men suspected of crossing the border illegally. Is that change significant in your mind?
VASQUEZ: To some people, it may seem like we're splitting hairs. But truly what they're doing is describing the act, how did you come into the United States? I entered the country illegally. But it's a different matter all together to refer to a person as being illegal. Illegal in terms of what? So I think that I do agree with the AP's new guideline that now they will only use the term illegal or illegally to describe the act and not the person. And I think that is important to note that our government has also followed suit on that. If you look at the immigration act, and it has been amended numerous times, they use alien, and in some cases they still say it, an alien in violation of law. Alien in that context means a person from the outside, a foreigner. The language has changed to unlawful presence, a person who entered the country illegally. So since 1996, the government doesn't use the term illegal alien in any of their publications. And I think that's very important. The government has to be up-to-date.
CAVANAUGH: In another move to try to figure out what to call people who are in the country in one way or another illegally, national public radio came out a year or so ago with the terminology unauthorized worker. What do you think about that?
BARRETT: I think the Union Tribune was or is still using that term, unauthorized. That's a little better. But the vagueness doesn't quite encompass all the possible cases in which a person might be here and not have a valid visa or not be a citizen or not be here as a legitimate resident. It's better. But it's also imperfect. All of the suggested terms to replace illegal immigrant have their own problems. And it is difficult to describe this entire body of people. We're talking millions of people with lots of special cases with one term. And perhaps what we'll see as this debate matures and we're beginning to discuss this even more, because I don't think we've barely scratched the surface, I think we may see a greater general understanding of all the specific kind of cases. And then each case will have its own language. And maybe that's the solution.
CAVANAUGH: I think that's a great way to leave it right now, more to come.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: Thank you both.
VASQUEZ: Thank you.