Undocumented or Illegal?  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2011

Undocumented or Illegal?   

Web exclusive
A campaign to change the way some immigrants are described in news stories faces an uphill battle. Posted: Fri, Dec. 17 2010

By Karen Carmichael and Rabiah Alicia Burks
Karen Carmichael, a former AJR editorial assistant, and Rabiah Alicia Burks are graduate students at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. This article was originally written for Maryland Newsline.     


Four years ago, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists launched a campaign to change the terms that news organizations use to refer to people who enter the country illegally. Rather than referring to them as "illegal immigrants," as the Associated Press Stylebook recommends, or the more loaded "illegal alien," NAHJ proposed using the term "undocumented immigrant."

"It is much easier to dehumanize and to silence somebody when you're calling them an illegal," says Ivan Roman, executive director of NAHJ. "When you don't give credibility to people, and you don't give respect to people, it is really easy for politicians to not take them into account when they are establishing policy."

A recent analysis of the frequency with which "illegal immigrant" turns up in U.S. newspapers and wire services reveals that usage has declined since 2006―but the term still shows up fairly frequently, as it has for decades.

The term appeared 582 times in U.S. newspapers and wire services in a single week in October 2010, according to LexisNexis. That was down from 2006, when 743 examples turned up between October 10 and October 16. But it was still significantly higher than in 2000, when the term appeared only 107 times. (See chart: Media Use of Immigration Terms)

Roman says he's not surprised by the continued presence of "illegal immigrant" and "illegal alien," which some publications still use. But he adds that the NAHJ campaign has made an impact.

That impact, though, didn't translate into an uptick in use of NAHJ's preferred term, "undocumented immigrant." Between October 10 and October 16, the phrase was used 36 times in newspaper and wire service accounts―down from 69 times in October 2006, and nearly even with the 33 times in 2000.

Meanwhile, news outlets' use of the term "illegal alien" was on the upswing. It appeared 110 times in U.S. newspapers and wire services in that week in October 2010, up from 28 times in 2000.

"You guys have got to get language right," says linguist Otto Santa Ana, who finds both "illegal immigrant" and "undocumented immigrant" to be partisan. Santa Ana prefers "unauthorized immigrant," which he says doesn't soft-pedal the issue of people entering and staying in the country without permission, but also doesn't characterize them as felons.

"It [connotes] more than not having papers, but it's less than being criminal," he says. Journalists, he adds, should try to find neutral terms.

David Minthorn , the AP's deputy standards editor, defends the use of the term "illegal immigrant." He says the AP Stylebook created its entry on "illegal immigrant" in 2004, in response to the heightened debate over border security and the enforcement of immigration laws after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

"Together the terms describe a person who resides in a country unlawfully by residency or citizenship requirements," Minthorn said in an e-mail interview. "Alternatives like undocumented worker, illegal alien or illegals lack precision or may have negative connotations. Illegal immigrant, on the other hand, is accurate and neutral for news stories."

But Santa Ana, a founding member of the César Chávez Center for Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the AP Stylebook is contradictory: it forbids using "illegal" as a noun but allows it as an adjective. Calling people illegal immigrants is only one step away from calling them illegals, he says.

"When you label a person as criminal, as illegal, it structures the way we think about those people," he says. "It's a strongly partisan perspective―it shouldn't be a term newspapers should be using."

Does it make a difference to use the term "illegal alien" as opposed to illegal immigrant or undocumented worker? "Yes, absolutely it does," says linguist Jennifer Sclafani, who has examined the press' use of language in her research. "No matter which way you look at it, an alien is always an outsider."

The term immigrant can have positive connotations, Sclafani says; all Americans without Native American ancestry are descended from immigrants. But alien, she says, is inherently negative.

"You'll never hear people refer to their grandparents as aliens," Sclafani says.

Politicians and political organizations are well aware of how the nuances of language can affect the outcomes of debates. They use specific terms depending on the type of emotion they want to invoke, says Stella Rouse, assistant professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. Pro-immigrant groups prefer not to use any term with the word "illegal" attached to it, while conservative groups have used terms like "illegal alien," which can be considered offensive, she says.

"The way terms are used, it's going to frame the debate," Rouse says.

Most of the stories published between October 10 and Oct. 16, 2010, that used "illegal alien" referred to immigrants in general terms. When an ethnic group was clearly identified, however, it was always Hispanic.

"Domingo Salazar and Norma Mendez, both illegal aliens, pleaded guilty in July to federal charges of smuggling women from Mexico and putting them on the street as prostitutes," the New York Post reported on October 14.

United Press International also reported on the story that day, saying, "Illegal aliens Domingo Salazar and his wife, Norma Mendez, allegedly ran the prostitution ring from their New York apartment."

An October 12 story in Charleston, South Carolina's Post and Courier used "illegal immigrants" throughout, except when it used "illegal aliens" to clarify a quote: "If you really want to say you don't want them (illegal aliens), sign here," it quoted Linda Rouvet, who called for immigration reform after her son was killed in a car accident with an illegal immigrant from Mexico, as saying.

"In most people's mind in this country," Roman says, "given the context of what's going on and giving the crossing of the border of Mexico, which is what the media focus on, [illegal immigrant] is the equivalent to Latino, and that's what we're fighting against now."

The NAHJ first saw anti-immigrant groups using "illegals" more and more in 2004 and 2005, Roman says. "Then the term started being used by politicians, and then by some in the mainstream media."

Between 2004 and 2006, several immigration reform efforts in Congress sparked protests and demonstrations across the country that garnered national media attention. During the first half of 2006, millions of immigrants marched to protest a House bill that would have classified all illegal immigrants as felons; anti-immigration marches were held in response.

In 2006, NAHJ drafted a statement condemning the use of the word "illegal" in conjunction with immigrants and wrote letters to news organizations to that effect. Some editors and TV stations responded, asking NAHJ for advice on the best terminology to use and how to cover the broader subject of immigration.

NAHJ didn't quantify the results of its campaign, but members did see a decrease in the use of the term "illegals" by the media, Roman says. NAHJ directly contacts news organizations that still occasionally use the term and suggests that they change their style, he says.

"It's the kind of thing that has to be instituted at that particular medium as a matter of style," Roman says. "So that no matter who's there, they are following the same guidelines."

Although the AP Stylebook makes a recommendation, it's up to each news organization to decide which terms to use.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock makes a clear distinction between "immigrant" and "alien," says International Editor Yavonda Chase. "Alien" is the paper's default term for referring to U.S. residents who aren't citizens. "Immigrant" is used only to describe people who intend to stay in the U.S. permanently. Since personal intentions can be difficult to determine in news stories, she says, "alien tends to be used more often."

Sometimes that can be very often: One 533-word story in the Democrat-Gazette, published October 16, used "illegal aliens" eight times.

The very concept of illegal immigration dates only to the 1920s, says Mae Ngai, a professor of history at Columbia University who focuses on immigration. "Everybody came legally" before that, "because there were no restrictions," she says. The only exception was for Chinese immigrants, when public animosity led to the exclusion of Chinese laborers in the late 19th century.

Between 1880 and World War I, only 1 percent of the millions of immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island―those who had a contagious disease or a criminal record― were turned away, Ngai says. New arrivals didn't need a visa, a green card or even a passport, she says.

Once immigrants were required to provide documentation in 1924, the notion of "undocumented" or "illegal" immigrants came into existence, Ngai says, and the terms entered the public discourse.

The news media must be more responsible with which terms they decide to use, Rouse says.

"They're information conduits," he says, "and they are carrying the message to the people."

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