Study: I-Word’s Usage Has Skyrocketed Alongside Policy Debate

Newsline graphs the use of dehumanizing slurs to refer to immigrants over the past 30 years.

By Mu00f3nica Novoa Jan 24, 2011

What does a typical week’s worth of i-word usage look like in U.S. newspapers and wire services? Maryland Newsline (out of the University of Maryland College of Journalism) recently published a special report on the use of "illegal alien," "illegal immigrant," "undocumented worker," and "undocumented immigrant." The search focused on Oct. 10-16, every two years from 1980-2010 and revealed that a spike in usage of the dehumanizing slurs usually coincided with contentious immigration policy proposals.

The report supports our own findings that the i-word’s usage quadrupled on television from the summer of 2009 to the summer of 2010, while SB 1070 and civil disobedience actions by DREAMers across the country were making headlines. The most striking increase came between 2002 and 2006, as the debate over comprehensive immigration reform exploded and Republicans and Democrats alike embraced the criminalizing framework for undocumented immigrants. Newsline has a helpful graphic illustrating all of this.

The report also shows that usage of the slur "illegal aliens" in particular, is up significantly from the year 2000.

The term appeared 582 times in U.S. newspapers and wire services in a single week in October 2010. That was down from 2006, when 743 results turned up between Oct. 10 and Oct. 16. But it was still significantly higher than in 2000, when the term only appeared 107 times in that week.

In 1994 (the year of Operation Gateway and California’s Prop 187), the four journalist of color professional groups–National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association, Native American Journalists Association and National Association of Black Journalists–issued the following stylebook guidance :

Except in direct quotations, do not use the phrase illegal alien or the word alien, in copy or in headlines, to refer to citizens of a foreign country who have come to the U.S. with no documents to show that they are legally entitled to visit, work or live here. Such terms are considered pejorative not only by those to whom they are applied but by many people of the same ethnic and national backgrounds who are in the U.S. legally.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists repeated recently the call for the media to stop using the i-word, stating that it "is grammatically incorrect and crosses the line by criminalizing the person, not the action they are purported to have committed." NAHJ President Iván Román told Newsline that, "The NAHJ first saw anti-immigrant groups using ‘illegals’ more and more in 2004 and 2005. … Then the term started being used by politicians, and then by some in the mainstream media."

The i-word is unacceptable for many reasons: it creates a climate that encourages hate crimes, supports racial profiling (both unlawful and via policy), and it goes against professional ethical journalism. But most of all, immigrants themselves regardless of status do not want to be called names that are, in thought and in action, dehumanizing.

In this Newsline video, Stefano Delens, originally from Italy, speaks about his views on immigration and language. The Drop the I-Word blog next week will debut a series from the point of view of community members who, like Stefano, are most affected by anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. We hope you pass on our stories and ask friends and family to drop the i-word. Sign the pledge at