Jose Antonio Vargas, behind Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, as she testifies about DREAM Act in 2011. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

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.)

Watch live streaming video from onlinenewsassociation at

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.)

The debate has surfaced in other places recently, including KQED’s Forum on July 13, 2012, and on National Public Radio.

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.

Undocumented or Illegal? Immigrant Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas Makes a Case 25 September,2012Laird Harrison

  • justin

    If you came to this country illigally then you are a law breaker and should be refered to as such. Calling illegal aliens undocumented workers is a way of trying to make being here illegally seem like a “clerical error” and not a crime. I’m sorry if this guy was brought here illegally by his parents but he should be mad at his parents for making him a criminal not made at the system for enforcing laws.

    • FYI entering the country without registration its not considered a crime but a civil offense…using you logic then people who park their cars illegally should be referred as criminals too…and you have no right to say he has to be mad at his parents…if you as a parent have a family that is starving in central america or terrorized by crime in a third world country I doubt there will be fences high enough or rivers deep enough that will prevent you from giving your family a decent lifestyle

  • I’m not convinced. Get a life outside of the US you POS loser.

  • ILLEGAL ALIEN! economy draining scum,border jumpers,wetbacks,brown filth,hows that for political correctness? A rose by any other name is still but a rose!

  • Jose admitted to using false documents,lying on official forms(both felonies) etc,and he is still here,not in prison or deported.Enforce the laws and get rid of that criminal,as well as understand that Illegal aliens are just that,illegal,and the Feds have that definition for people like him.

  • Why hasn’t this parasite Vargas been deported yet? Oh, that’s right…. must be that tin pot dictator Comrade ObaMao and his gaggle of Tan Klan minions.

    The correct legal term is “illegal alien.” These cretins are not “immigrants,” but criminals. They are hardly “undocumented.” They have lots of documents…. all forged or stolen.

    By the way, who is paying to trot this arrogant a-hole all over the country to lecture law-abiding Americans anyway?

  • scuncic

    This Jose Antonio Vargas is an ILLEGAL ALIEN no matter how he got here. He and every other illegal alien have raped the American taxpayers for years. We have a good way to come to this country legally. Illegal immigration costs the American taxpayer more than $265 BILLION a year for schooling and health care. This don’t count the lost jobs for Americans. Why do you think states are trying to get rid of the illegal aliens? I’m not a republican, but I will be voting for Romney and pray to God he will get out immigration laws enforced, unlike obama, who is nothing but a poor excuse for a president.

  • Armando Cedillo

    How about “unauthorized foreign national” or “undocumented alien”? Perhaps “Insouciant Interloper”?

  • juandos

    Funny how its OK to break a law the libtbies don’t like…

    Will the libbies volunteer their own money to pay for the high cost of illegal immigration?

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor