Who Gets to Define Immigrants as “Illegal”?

Yesterday, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan posted a blog entry entitled “Readers Won’t Benefit if Times Bans the Term ‘Illegal Immigrant.’” This comes a week after her original post, “Is ‘Illegal Immigrant’ the Right Description?” which was a response to journalist Jose Antonio Vargas’s announcement that his organization Define American is calling for the Times, the Associated Press, and other news organizations to stop using the word “illegal” when referring to immigrants.

In an interview with Poynter.org, the Times’s Philip B. Corbett, associate managing editor for standards, asserts that “‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘illegal immigration’ are accurate, factual and as neutral as we can manage under the circumstances,” while “[p]roposed alternatives like ‘undocumented’ seem really to be euphemisms…” Julia Preston, the Times’s national immigration reporter, defended the use of “illegal,” but added that there should be flexibility to use “undocumented” when appropriate. In fact, both of these terms have become politicized in the last few decades. While Sullivan and Corbett emphasize that the Times avoids using disparaging terms such as “illegals” and “aliens,” they don’t seem to recognize how easy and common the slippage between “illegal immigrants” and “illegals”/“aliens” is.

Contrary to Sullivan’s conclusion, words matter, and “illegal” is neither a neutral nor accurate term. There are normative assumptions undergirding it, and perverse incentives for using it. News organizations must be held accountable for the impact their use of “illegal” has not only on individual readers, but also on communities and on any chance of future congressional action. It ostracizes immigrants, reinforces unhelpful and inaccurate stereotypes of them as criminals, and leaves us one step further away from any kind of meaningful legislative reform.

Although Vargas’s recently launched campaign has received widespread attention, it is not the first of its kind. One prominent example is the Applied Research Center/Colorlines.com’s “Drop The I-Word” campaign. Immigrant activists have been pushing the issue for quite some time. The fact that major news outlets are just picking up on this story is a reflection of the fact that Vargas has become the most visible and arguably the most influential person in the movement for immigrant rights since coming out as undocumented a year ago in a Times Magazine cover story. For better or worse, it is only now that Vargas has made it his cause that more people are paying attention.

By using “illegal” instead of “undocumented” or another term, the Times and AP are implicitly privileging the way in which the federal immigration bureaucracy defines immigrants over the way immigrants define themselves. Too frequently journalists and scholars accept these definitions out of hand without questioning them. How, why, and by whom are these definitions created? As law enforcement agencies that justify their yearly budgets and very existence by the number of people they apprehend, detain, and deport, do the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have a vested interest in defining immigrants as “illegal”? Do government-contracted private prison companies like the Corrections Corporation of America and its shareholders have a vested interest in defining immigrants as “illegal”?

Instead of asking whether “illegal immigrant” is “the right” description, the more important question is what is the best description? Most of the commonly used descriptors are imperfect and inherently problematic in one way or another. Aside from “illegal” and “undocumented,” other terms such as “out of status,” “illicit,” and “irregular” are clunky and confusing. Almost all are too capacious. “Unauthorized” may be the best of all the flawed options since, unlike most of the other terms, it describes immigrants’ relation to the state without denigrating them.

Ultimately, as immigration lawyer Daniel Kowalski points out, “the only thing that matters is whether, and when, we enact meaningful, and comprehensive, immigration reform. Toward that end, let’s use language that’s helpful rather than harmful.”

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