Debating “Illegal” vs. “Undocumented” in the Media Landscape

By Julianne Hing Jul 10, 2009

Words carry weight, hauling behind them unspoken codes, images and histories. And when it comes to how we talk about immigration in this country, the language debate tends to heat up when we talk about people who are in the country without papers. Next week, USA TODAY is hosting a live video discussion Monday, July 13 at 3:45pm EST to talk about the language journalists use when referencing immigrants who are in the country without papers.

At USA TODAY, reporters use the term "illegal immigrants" to describe foreign nationals who are in the country illegally. They do not use the words "illegal" or "illegals" as a noun, and avoid using the term "alien" to refer to immigrants, except in direct quotes. The National Council of La Raza, which advocates for civil rights for Hispanics, encourages use of the term "undocumented immigrant" or "undocumented worker" to describe people in the USA without legal status, says vice president Lisa Navarrete. "We especially object to the use of the term ‘illegals’ as a noun," she says. "This is strictly pejorative, not to mention grammatically incorrect." NumbersUSA, an organization that calls for reduced immigration, believes "illegal alien" is the most accurate term, says Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations. Under immigration law, an "alien" is anyone who is not a U.S. citizen. Therefore, Jenks says, people who enter the USA without inspection and "non-immigrants who overstay or otherwise violate the terms of their visas are ‘illegal aliens’."

Click here to tune in. Should be a good fight, no? While it’s easy for mainstream media to blame legal language for the labels they use for certain groups–don’t the people of color in the house just looove being referred to as "minorities" still, in 2009?–people forget that legal terms are directly influenced by the language legislators use when writing and advocating policy. Politicians, those masters of communicating (and manipulating), often twist a label around their agenda. The decision about which phrase to use is clearly a political one. The galling thing is when journalists, those supposedly unbiased storytellers, pretend they aren’t taking a position when they use the words they do. The conversation is not a new one. Last week Sen. Chuck Schumer revived the debate when he insisted Dem’s reject the phrase "undocumented immigrant" in favor of the more "accurate" label of "illegal immigrant." Dave Bennion at also refutes the claim that "illegal alien" and "illegal immigrant" were pre-existing legal terminology before restrictionists decided to mangle the phrase. I also was reminded of a 2007 discussion around the matter led by Daniel Hernandez, an actual media maker and writer, over on his blog, Intersections. And to complete your "illegal" vs. "undocumented" reading material binge, check out this interview with David Bacon, whose thoughtful discussion of the title of his book, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, gives more context about the political moment we’re in and the legislative options on the table. So unfortunately, the conversation won’t end next week, because neither will the fight around whether or not people without papers have the right to enter and be here. p.s. The ColorLines style guide calls for the use of "undocumented immigrant" over "illegal immigrant" any day, and the use of "illegal alien" is pretty much verboten. But at least we ain’t pretending to be impartial and neutral.