If you come to the United States — or stay here — without the permission of the government, are you an illegal immigrant, an illegal alien, or an undocumented immigrant?
Jose Antonio Vargas took on the long-simmering controversy over this terminology on Friday when he spoke to the Online News Association at its annual meeting.
Part of a Pulitzer-Prize winning team at the Washington Post, Vargas surprised his colleagues in June, 2011 when he revealed in The New York Times Magazine that he had come to the country illegally as a 12-year-old. The announcement was the beginning of a new focus for Vargas as an activist for immigrant rights. His visit to San Francisco was a homecoming; Vargas spent his adolescence in Mountain View, attended college at San Francisco State University and worked for the San Francisco Chronicle before going to the Post.
You can watch his speech in this video from the convention (Vargas comes on at 17:40.)
After relating how he discovered that his green card was fake when he applied for a driver’s license, Vargas apologized to former colleagues. “I lied to some of the people here,” he said. “And I’m really, really sorry for that. I’m sorry I had to lie to be in your newsrooms.”
Then he went on to make a case for striking the terms “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” from news reports. Vargas prefers the term “undocumented immigrant.” He gave these arguments:
- The term is inaccurate, because many people in question have not been convicted. Vargas quoted a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court on Arizona’s immigration law: “As a general rule it is not a crime for a removable alien to remain in the United States.”
- The term is inherently biased and has historically been used to influence opinion against various immigrant groups.
- The term is dehumanizing because it refers to a person as illegal rather than an illegal act.
Not everyone agrees. CNN columnist Ruben Navarrette took the opposite position in a July 6, 2012 column. Among other points, he argues that “undocumented” is inaccurate because many of the people in question have documents — but the documents are forged.
News organizations often use style guides that indicate which terms to use in controversial situations. The most widely used style guide is produced by the Associated Press, and it specifies that “illegal immigrant”rather than “undocumented immigrant” (or “illegal alien”) be used.
Vargas said he is “targeting” the Associated Press and the New York Times because they can influence other journalism organizations. (KQED generally adheres to guidelines in the Associated Press style book, but reporters here have used both “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented immigrant” on this website.)
In the forum segment, host Joshua Johnson read a message from a listener: “I can’t understand why the word ‘illegal’ has been replaced with the word ‘undocumented.’ If you break a law you must pay the consequences. This whole discussion is giving the illegal aliens more latitude in breaking the existing federal laws. End of discussion.”
His guest, Angela F. Chan, senior staff attorney in the Criminal Justice Reform Program at the Asian Law Caucus, responded. Here’s the exchange that followed:
Angela F. Chan: I’m happy to explain that. CNN actually put out an interesting piece in which they explained why the word “illegal” as it refers to undocumented immigrants is actually a slur. When someone breaks a [law], even if it’s a very serious criminal law, you normally don’t refer to that person as illegal. You refer to that person as an individual who has committed a crime. For someone who is undocumented, it’s not even a crime to be in the United States. It’s a violation of federal civil laws. So we use the word “undocumented” because they don’t have documents to be in the United States. It’s a more accurate term and a less biased and inflammatory term.
Joshua Johnson: But isn’t it possible that if someone has immigrated to the U.S. in a way that is not lawful that the term illegal immigrant might actually be accurate?
Angela F. Chan: It’s not accurate in that it’s inflammatory. It’s making someone seem like they are not human.
Joshua Johnson: Inflammatory but accurate. I mean, and I hate to harp over this point, but I think the linguistics of this is part of the uproar over how we deal with immigration.
Angela F. Chan: And I understand the concern. The problem is that that term does not apply uniformly to people who break the law. It’s only applied to a certain set of populations, undocumented immigrants. And basically the idea behind it is to make this group seem less human.