On September 26th, Margaret Sullivan at The New York Times, published a post about immigration reporter Julia Preston's thoughts on the term "illegal immigrant." We've talked to Ms. Preston before about her assertions that the term is "neutral."  The term is far from neutral, given that it was popularized by anti-immigrant restrictionists and recommended for use by republican strategist Frank Luntz in an effort to encourage an understanding of immigrants as "criminals" and create a politically useful division among voters.

We've reported via Colorlines.com about how the i-word is harmful from many angles and reasons. This is the letter we sent to Ms. Sullivan today:

Dear Ms. Sullivan,


Thank you for asking The New York Times readers for opinions about the term "illegal immigrant." The Applied Research Center launched the Drop the I-Word campaign in September 2010 and we have since been pushing for media to retire describing people as "illegal" in any form. There are compelling reasons to get rid of the i-word based on journalistic standards alone. Calling someone an "illegal immigrant" is 1) legally inaccurate and misleading 2) politically loaded and popularized by anti-immigrant strategists and 3) experienced as racially biased and dehumanizing by the people it is used to describe. The current debate presents an opportunity for journalists to be responsible to their readers by dropping this coded language.

The i-word is on its way out. Many journalists are making way for culturally competent, respectful coverage on immigration. The Miami Herald, The San Antonio Express-News, Fox News Latino, ABC News and The Huffington Post have all dropped the i-word. We hope the New York Times will be next. The 7,800-member Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) passed a resolution in 2011 to discontinue use of the term "illegal alien" based on the idea that describing someone as "illegal" is unconstitutional. They recommended that members re-evaluate the implications of the use of "illegal immigrant."  Our campaign has also been endorsed by the national UNITY alliance of over 10,000 members comprised of the Asian American Journalists Association, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Native American Journalists Association and most recently, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association.

Recently, in an important story about child migrants, Ms. Preston described six-year-old Juan David Gonzalez, as an "illegal border-crosser." Ms. Preston argues that the term applies in some instances, but a court has never found anyone to be "illegal" in the history of immigration court. Neither "illegal alien" nor "Illegal immigrant" are terms defined by law. Only when people are caught entering the country without inspection and are then prosecuted, does the possibility even exist for them to be charged with a misdemeanor. People who have entered and are present in the country without papers are held to civil code. Still, whenever someone's actions are in violation of the law, that does not make a person's entire existence "illegal." We know she was convicted of a crime and still we don't call Martha Stewart an "illegal businesswoman." Firearms can be "illegal." Contraband can be "illegal." A person cannot be described as such.

Words matter. A study released in August by the Center for American Progress, "How Today's Immigration Enforcement Policies Impact Children, Families, and Communities" showed that children are beginning "to view immigration as equivalent to illegal." When a researcher in the study asked a child, Andrea, if she knew the meaning of "immigrant," she said, "Yeah, it is when someone is illegal in this country, and police-ICE come to look for them to send them back to their country." Biased language creates bias in the minds of children and media consumers of all ages. The National Hispanic Media Council's report, The Impact of Media Stereotypes on Opinions and Attitudes Towards Latinos, revealed that non-Latinos, no matter what the media format, think that Latinos and "illegal immigrants" are one and the same.

The term is only achieving dehumanization, confusion and creating a bias largely against Latinos. The i-word does not bring precision or clarity to the immigration debate, but functions only to taint all immigrants with criminality by making them "illegal." Employers, corporations and governments are not being conflated with criminality and illegality - only migrants.

There are accurate terms available to explain a person's migratory status or experience, such as "unauthorized," "aspiring citizen" "entered without inspection," etc. The United Nation's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) uses "undocumented migrants," "unauthorized migrants" or "irregular migrants." Journalists have other terms available to them. The i-word is inaccurate, politically charged and experienced as racially charged. It's time for the New York Times to Drop the I-Word.


Respectfully Yours,


Mónica Novoa, Drop the I-Word campaign coordinator


A petition has started on SignOn.com from Helen Chavez, the widow of Cesar Chavez, urging the New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson to Drop the I-Word. We support the petition and urge everyone to sign on!