Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

What's In A Name?

Covering the border and immigration, as we so often do here on the Fronteras: The Changing America Desk, we are frequently confronted with the question: What do we call a person who has entered the country without proper documentation? It’s a raging debate, of course, across the internet and in many newsrooms, because what you say, how you label this group of people, often reveals your sympathies or political inclinations.

So, here’s how it came up recently in our own newsroom: our newest reporter Adrian Florido recently queried over email

I use 'undocumented immigrant,' but do we have a Fronteras policy on this?


Oh no! You didn’t go there ... responded Fronteras Correspondent Hernán Rozemberg.

But he did, so lets check out where we are on this ancient issue, starting with the bible for journalists, the Associated Press Stylebook, circa 2012:

illegal immigrant: Used to describe someone who has entered a country illegally or who resides in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Acceptable variations include living in the country without legal permission. Use of these terms, as with any terms implying illegalities, must be based on reliable information about a person's true status. Unless quoting someone, AP does not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or the term undocumented.

Note the sentence in bold (my emphasis) –- that’s a recent addition to the AP’s description of this term, and reflects the enormous pressure on journalists these days to resist using the term “illegal immigrant.”

On the left, that term is just not PC. There’s even an online campaign initiated last year by Colorlines, a daily news site devoted to racial justice, to convince media groups to “Drop the I Word.” Here’s the pledge: I will not call any human being "illegal." The racially charged slur and related terms confuse the immigration debate, fuel violence and don't reflect my values.

This campaign is endorsed by many journalist groups, including UNITY, the umbrella organization representing thousands of journalists of color.


But meanwhile, the right and most immigration restrictionists insist on the term “illegal aliens.” MSNBC recently solicited opinions on the subject, and Mark Krikorian, Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies, weighed in: “The most accurate label for non-citizens who are in the United States without permission is "illegal alien." He argues that term, “captures the essence of the person's situation: an alien is defined in the U.S. Code as "any person not a citizen or national of the United States," and their presence here is illegal, i.e., in violation of the law.”

But this most recent upsurge of new debate on an old topic was inspired, it seems, from a recent CNN editorial by prominent Hispanic businessman Charles Garcia, who picked up on some very interesting language used in the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn most of Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 law targeting … targeting … targeting WHO?! ...“illegal immigrants.”

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said: "As a general rule, it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain present in the United States." Immigrants living without documentation in this country, it seems, are subject to deportation in a civil procedure, not criminal prosecution, (my emphasis).

Unfortunately, I’m not going to solve the debate in this blog. Our Fronteras Desk policy right now mirrors that of NPR News which uses a variety of terms, including “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented immigrant” or “unauthorized worker,” mixing them up even within one story. We do not and will not use the term “alien;” not so much for political reasons, but because anyone who grew up watching E.T. or Sigourney Weaver movies, knows that that term has too many green and creepy connotations and is clearly derogatory.

Yet, I have to admit, there is an essential hypocrisy in the widespread and accepted use of the term “illegal immigrant” by the journalistic mainstream. Whenever we write or broadcast about someone who has been arrested or accused, we use the term “alleged” to couch any claim of criminality. He or she is an “alleged” forger, bank robber, or killer, until convicted of that crime. The vast pool of 11 million or so immigrants to this country who are living and working here without legal documentation have not been convicted of any crime. So.... really? How can they then be “illegal” immigrants?

Why are we talking about this? Because it is the silly season, the political season, run-up to a critical presidential contest and both candidates desperately need Latinos on their side. So we parse the labels, scrutinize the names, analyze the nuance.