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Drop the 'i' word? Debating the term 'illegal immigrant'

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"Drop the i-word" is a campaign to stop using the word "illegal" in the immigration discussion.

Whenever I write stories about illegal immigrants, I receive complaints that I should “drop the ‘i’ word” (which is also the name of a campaign to end the use of the term “illegal” when referring to illegal immigrants).

In the interest of bringing this debate into the open, we solicited a few short opinion pieces from leading voices on immigration issues. We also asked the co-editor of the AP Stylebook, a key arbiter of word usage for journalists, to share his thoughts.

And we hope you weigh in in the comment section, too. What’s your take on the phrase “illegal immigrant”?

Word games
By Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that supports tighter immigration controls:

Courtesy of Mark Krikorian

Mark Krikorian is the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that supports tighter immigration controls.

"When the facts are against you, argue the law. When the law is against you, argue the facts. When both the law and the facts are against you, pound on the table."

This rule of thumb for lawyers has been adopted by the pro-illegal immigration crowd. The facts are against them: 11 million illegal aliens cause a host of serious problems for job seekers, for taxpayers, for public order, for national security.

Likewise, the law is against them. There's no question that immigration laws are legitimate and that every illegal immigrant knows perfectly well that he is breaking American law.

What's left? Pound on the table, demanding that illegal aliens be referred to in ways that obscure their illegality, such as "undocumented worker" or simply "immigrant." "Unauthorized worker" is less deceitful, but still evades the basic fact of illegality.

The most accurate label for non-citizens who are in the United States without permission is "illegal alien." It is used repeatedly in statutes, judicial rulings, and executive orders and captures the essence of the person's situation: an alien is defined in the U.S. Code as "any person not a citizen or national of the United States," and their presence here is illegal, i.e., in violation of the law.

"Illegal immigrant" is less precise: "immigrant" has the specific legal meaning of a foreigner who has been granted lawful permanent residence (a green card). But in common usage "immigrant" means any foreigner living here, so "illegal immigrant" is less formal, but still accurate.

Why terminology about the immigrant matters
By Kevin R. Johnson, a Mexican-American who is dean of the UC Davis School of Law and Mabie Apallas professor of Public Interest Law and Chicana/o Studies:

Courtesy of UC Davis

Kevin R. Johnson is a Mexican-American who is the dean of the UC Davis School of Law, and Mabie Apallas professor of Public Interest Law and Chicana/o Studies.

A little over a generation ago, the popular press, and people in polite company, referred to African Americans as Negroes. Times have changed and the media now refers to African Americans. The “science” of racial categories changed and social sensibilities did too.

A modern terminological debate, also with civil rights implications, has perplexed many: how should the press refer to noncitizens without proper authorization under the U.S. immigration laws?

Advocates of greater immigration enforcement and tighter immigration laws generally support the use of terms such as “illegal aliens,” “illegal immigrants,” or simply “illegals.” (There are other pejorative terms used by partisans in the immigration debate, such as “anchor babies,” but let us leave those labels aside for now). These are loaded terms that are, for the most part, nowhere to be found in the comprehensive federal immigration law, the Immigration & Nationality Act. I say loaded because these terms equate the unauthorized immigrant with a criminal when the person may not have committed a crime at all. Still, the reference to “illegal” instantly suggests that the person is undeserving of sympathy but in fact deserves punishment. Not surprisingly, advocates who favor harsh treatment for immigrants support the use of terms and rhetoric that support their restrictionist positions.

The “illegal” terminology obscures an even more troubling characteristic. Somewhere around 60-70 percent of today’s unauthorized immigrants are from Mexico and Central America. “Illegal aliens” in many instances can serve as a kind of racial code for Latinos. People can speak of wanting to remove “illegal aliens” from the country with legitimacy while they could not argue for the removal of all Latinos.

A responsible and independent media should want to avoid using terms supporting one side in the culture wars, especially when those terms mask racial animus. There are readily available neutral synonyms for “illegals,” such as undocumented immigrant and unauthorized immigrant, which do not carry discriminatory baggage.

Guidance for journalists
By David Minthorn, deputy standards editor of The Associated Press:

Courtesy of David Minthorn

David Minthorn is the deputy standards editor of The Associated Press.

The Associated Press recognizes that immigration may involve complex and emotional issues. Accordingly, AP newswriting emphasizes the use of precise, balanced and neutral terms.

To describe individuals who may be living in a country without authorization, The AP Stylebook rules out using "illegal alien" and "illegals" in AP news reports. The language may be unnecessarily harsh as generic description.

The Stylebook also rules out using the term "undocumented" on our own in immigration contexts. This description may tend to minimize what could be a matter of civil or criminal law, such as evading border controls or residing without legal permission. "Undocumented" also suggests that the problem is a minor one of missing paperwork, when the people involved are in jeopardy of arrest, deportation or other sanctions.

Instead, AP provides for a variety of different terms for people alleged to be violating immigration law. One option for AP reporters is "illegal immigrant," a term added to the Stylebook in 2004.

As the Stylebook entry (below) indicates, other terms are acceptable, including "living in the country without legal permission," depending on the specific situation. AP does not insist on "illegal immigrant" as the only acceptable term.

illegal immigrant: Used to describe someone who has entered a country illegally or who resides in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Acceptable variations include living in the country without legal permission. Use of these terms, as with any terms implying illegalities, must be based on reliable information about a person's true status. Unless quoting someone, AP does not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or the term undocumented.

Related stories from msnbc.com and NBC News:
 California bar: Illegal immigrant should get law license
Can an illegal immigrant become a lawyer?
Obama administration won't seek deportation of young illegal immigrants
Skepticism, joy among illegal immigrants over Obama decision
Obama immigration order poses dilemma for eligible illegal immigrants