Before publishing a story on immigration, every editor faces a question: What term should be used to describe an immigrant who is in the United States illegally?
The AP Stylebook states that the preferred term is “illegal immigrant”—but that “illegal” should not be used as a noun. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists advocates the use of the term “undocumented immigrant” or “undocumented worker.” A campaign headed by the Applied Research Center and its news site ColorLines – called “Drop the ‘i’ Word” – considers “illegal” a slur and is calling on media outlets across the country to take a pledge to stop using the term.
But for editors of U.S. ethnic media—whose news outlets serve the nation’s ethnic and immigrant communities, in multiple languages—the choice may not be as clear. Undocumented immigrants may be described as anything from “living in hiding” in Punjabi to “illegal overstayers” in Korean.
Some ethnic media sectors have taken a stand on the issue: Spanish-language media, for example, generally use the term “undocumented.” But for many, the question of what term to use remains the individual choice of each writer and editor.
‘Undocumented’ in Spanish – Years Ahead of the English-Language Media
While English-language media is starting to debate the issue, Spanish-language media have used the term “inmigrantes indocumentados” (undocumented immigrants) for years.
“La Opinión never uses the term ‘illegal inmigrant.’ For us, it’s unacceptable,” said Amelia Estades-Santaliz, managing editor of the Los Angeles Spanish-language newspaper.
“We had this discussion 10 years ago, maybe more,” said Juan Antonio Ramos, executive editor of La Estrella En Casa in Fort Worth, Tex., which consistently uses the term “inmigrante indocumentado” (undocumented immigrant). “I think this is a healthy discussion and I hope English-language media start using the term we’ve been using for years.”
“It’s a decision every newsroom is going to have to make sooner or later,” said Alfredo Carbajal, chief editor of Al Día in Dallas, Tex., which has used the term “undocumented” since its founding in 2003.
But the newspaper’s editorial policy has not been without opposition by some readers.
“There are many diverse sentiments about immigration, even within the Hispanic community,” said Carbajal. “We’ve had readers call in, saying, ‘By not calling illegal immigration “illegal,” you’re already taking a side.’”
Al Día’s response, he said, has been to be “careful” to publish content that is “accurate but also sensitive,” and to “represent all points of view” – including the perspectives of those who are anti-illegal immigration.
“We shouldn’t label those people racist. We have to listen to their concern too,” said Carbajal.
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