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"Illegal," "Undocumented," and The New York Times
Tuesday, October 02, 2012 - 04:16 PM
On last week's show, Bob spoke to Jose Antonio Vargas about the way that news outlets talk about immigrants and immigration. Since an article in the New York Times last year, Vargas has been working to spark discussion around immigration issues, and at the Online News Association conference last month, he announced his plan to track, and hopefully influence news organizations to move away from the terms "Illegal alien" or "illegal immigrant" to terms like "undocumented" or "unauthorized" immigrant.
Chief among his focus were two of the world's largest news outlets - the Associated Press and the New York Times. Today, the Times' public editor Margaret Sullivan commented (for the third time) on Vargas' request:
As public editor, I don’t make rulings on style for The Times. All I can do is weigh in, express an opinion.
After all the buildup, my weighing in may seem anticlimactic, because I see no advantage for Times readers in a move away from the paper’s use of the phrase “illegal immigrant.”
It is clear and accurate; it gets its job done in two words that are easily understood. The same cannot be said of the most frequently suggested alternatives – “unauthorized,” “immigrants without legal status,” “undocumented.” Undocumented, as the immigration reporter Julia Preston noted in an interview with me, has “a new currency” because of a federal policy change involving immigrants who came here as children 15 and under, so the word may be useful in that context.
In our interview with Vargas, he argued that the term is, in fact, neither precise nor accurate:
JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS: My beef, such as it is, with the term “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” is the fact that they’re inaccurate and imprecise. To be in this country without papers is actually a civil offense, not a criminal one. A Republican strategist named Frank Luntz, back in 2005, actually wrote a memo specifically saying that people like me should be called illegal aliens and illegal immigrants to further criminalize people like me. So how can journalists, who are supposed to be neutral, take something off the pages of somebody like Frank Luntz? The other question here is that about 50% of the people who are in America, quote, unquote, “illegally” came to America legally; they overstayed their visa. And so, saying that everybody’s, quote, unquote, “illegal” actually doesn’t acknowledge the complexity of the immigration system.
The Atlantic Wire called Vargas for comment, and got this response:
First things first: I appreciate the public editor's openness and willingness to have a conversation about this term--a conversation that, in fact, should happen in newsrooms across America, especially in towns, cities and states that are deeply impacted by this issue. You cannot divorce illegal immigration from the changing demographics of our country.
I am disappointed at her assessment. The headline of the blog, to me, is most revealing: "Readers Won’t Benefit if Times Bans the Term ‘Illegal Immigrant.’" Which readers? Readers who want and need to understand the complex and evolving nature of immigration in America, how an immigrant can be out-of-status one week and have status the next? Readers from immigrant families (Latinos and Asians, particularly) who are likely to personally know someone who is undocumented and is offended that their friends and relatives are continually marginalized and dehumanized?
We'll follow up on this post if there are any updates.