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When Is An 'Illegal Immigrant' No Longer Illegal?

When is an “illegal immigrant” no longer illegal?

Linguistically, that begins now. After years of debate in the media — and even on these pages — about how to refer to people who have either entered this country without proper or any documentation, or who have stayed in this country after their legal visa expired, we now have official guidance from the Associated Press that “illegal immigrant” is no longer the preferred term.

On the Fronteras Desk we have continued to use that term in our coverage because, simply, it was a widely accepted shorthand way to describe more than 11 million people who had arrived or stayed without proper documentation. Also, any change in terms ran the risk of sounding as if we were pandering to one side of the debate or the other. But, finally, the AP has made it easy: an “immigrant” cannot be illegal, only his or her actions.


But it gets complicated. As Fronteras Desk reporter Michel Marizco tweets:

Guidance from the Associated Press now says we must “Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?”

Of course, all reporters and editors who cover this subject know that getting that specific is very difficult and certainly requires more specific reporting. A group of day laborers milling around a local Home Depot used to be “illegal immigrants,” now they are — possibly — a mix of people from, say, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico who entered the country without documentation or overstayed their visas.

It gets wordy, but it’s increasingly necessary.

Especially as the nation moves forward with immigration reform, and 11 million people who are here without the correct documentation could suddenly be on a “path to citizenship,” with some kind of temporary probationary status, it becomes critical that we be as specific as possible about potential fellow citizens.

What term do you think best describes immigrants living in the U.S. illegally?

While the hue and cry about the use of the term “illegal immigrant” has been around for a while, and is absolutely justified, the timing of this official change does get under my skin. Let me first be clear on this: I think losing the term “illegal immigrant” is justified and long overdue.

But, here’s what’s annoying about the timing on this: On so many other fronts we as a nation seem to have just discovered our Latino neighbors. Politically, they are newly powerful. Economically, they are a vast, new market. In the media wars, both Fox Latino and CNN are moving in to claim their audience.

So when is an illegal immigrant no longer an illegal immigrant? When politics make him or her a possible constituent, a growing economy identifies a new market, and the media finally recognizes the potency of a new audience.