Im­mi­gra­tion lan­guage wars

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Read the on­line com­ments ac­com­pa­ny­ing any story on im­mi­gra­tion and you get a taste of the im­pas­sioned pub­lic de­bate over what to do about those who may be in the coun­try un­law­fully. For news or­ga­ni­za­tions, there’s a sec­ondary dis­cus­sion heat­ing up over what to call them.

The dilemma is not new. Most news­rooms set­tled on ter­mi­nol­ogy long ago. Many ad­here to the widely fol­lowed guid­ance of the As­so­ci­ated Press, which prefers “il­le­gal im­mi­grant.” The Post’s in­ter­nal style book says “un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant” also may be used.

Dis­cus­sion was re­newed re­cently when Leo E. Lau­rence, a San Diego jour­nal­ist and mem­ber of the di­ver­sity com­mit­tee of the So­ci­ety of Pro­fes­sional Jour­nal­ists, wrote a col­umn for the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s mag­a­zine urg­ing “un­doc­u­mented” rather than “il­le­gal.”

“Sim­ply put, only a judge, not a jour­nal­ist, can say that some­one is an‘ il­le­gal,’” he wrote. Lau­rence, who was of­fer­ing a per­sonal view that SPJ has not en­dorsed, soon ended up in a spir­ited on-air dis­agree­ment with Fox News Chan­nel’s Bill O’Reilly, who sug­gested that re­fus­ing to use the term “il­le­gal” is “po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness gone mad.” The ex­change sparked ro­bust de­bate in the bl­o­go­sphere.

Among jour­nal­ists, Lau­rence is not alone in his view.

“We pre­fer ‘un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant,’ ” said Michele Sal­cedo, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of His­panic Jour­nal­ists. She said that many peo­ple en­ter the United States legally doc­u­mented but “for one rea­son or an­other they over­stay their visa limit and be­come ‘un­doc­u­mented,’ as it were.” The term “un­doc­u­mented” is “more in­clu­sive and ac­cu­rate,” said Sal­cedo, an edi­tor in the Washington bureau of the As­so­ci­ated Press.

She also agreed with Lau­rence that call­ing some­one “il­le­gal” is a judg­ment that courts, not jour­nal­ists, should make. “In this coun­try, if you are ac­cused of a crime, whether it’s a mis­de­meanor or a felony, you’re en­ti­tled to your day in court,” she said.

Don­ald M. Ker­win Jr., a vice pres­i­dent at the Mi­gra­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute, a non­par­ti­san think tank, said “il­le­gal im­mi­grant” is se­man­ti­cally wrong. While it is proper to say some­one broke the law, he said, “you can’t call them an ‘il­le­gal’ per­son.”

Many read­ers think these kinds of dis­tinc­tions are ab­surd. They ar­gue that en­ter­ing the coun­try with­out doc­u­ments is, on its face, il­le­gal. And if the le­gal doc­u­ments ex­pired, they say, for­eign­ers are here in vi­o­la­tion of the law.

Mark Kriko­rian, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Im­mi­gra­tion Stud­ies, which sup­ports tighter con­trols on im­mi­gra­tion, re­jects “un­doc­u­mented” as “gib­ber­ish.” Many for­eign­ers en­ter with forged or stolen doc­u­ments, he said, adding: “You could call them ‘falsely doc­u­mented,’ but then you get into re­ally un­wieldy ter­mi­nol­ogy.”

He also said it is “sophistry” to ar­gue that the term “il­le­gal im­mi­grant” can be used only af­ter a for­mal le­gal judg­ment. “Get­ting a park­ing ticket isn’t a crime. But it’s il­le­gal,” he said.

Kriko­rian also thinks il­le­gal “alien” is ac­cept­able, not­ing that fed­eral statutes use that word to re­fer to for­eign­ers who en­tered un­law­fully, as well as those here legally on a so-called “green card.” Most main­stream news or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing The Post, for­bid us­ing “alien” on grounds that sec­ondary dic­tio­nary def­i­ni­tions in­clude pe­jo­ra­tive words like “strange.” Like­wise, The Post and oth­ers pro­hibit us­ing “il­le­gal” as a noun (“ he’s an il­le­gal”).

Reach­ing agree­ment on al­ter­na­tive ter­mi­nol­ogy would be chal­leng­ing.

“ The trou­ble is that when you start try­ing to come up with al­ter­na­tives, they’re all prob­lem­atic,” said Roy Beck, a for­mer jour­nal­ist and founder of Num­ber­sUSA, a group that fa­vors lim­it­ing le­gal and il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion. He said even the term “im­mi­grant” is of­ten mis­used when ap­plied to those who come legally on a tem­po­rary worker visa.

Beck said a sub­sti­tute for “il­le­gal im­mi­grant” might be the more cum­ber­some “un­law­fully present for­eign na­tional.” Ker­win raised the pos­si­bil­ity of “unau­tho­rized im­mi­grant.”

A re­view of Post ter­mi­nol­ogy in sto­ries dur­ing the sec­ond half of 2010 shows that “un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant” was used about six times more fre­quently than “il­le­gal im­mi­grant.”

The Post would be wise to join the dis­cus­sion over the best vo­cab­u­lary, even if it ended up re­in­forc­ing its cur­rent di­rec­tives.

Tin­ker­ing with the ter­mi­nol­ogy risks pro­pel­ling news or­ga­ni­za­tions into the white-hot de­bate over im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy. Those that aban­doned “il­le­gal im­mi­grant,” for ex­am­ple, surely would be ac­cused of soft­en­ing the jar­gon to fa­vor ad­vo­cates of less re­stric­tive im­mi­gra­tion laws.

But any con­ver­sa­tion about ac­cu­racy is worth hav­ing. And this is not just about se­man­tics. Some­times the terms used in de­scrib­ing an is­sue are so pow­er­ful they can af­fect the course of the de­bate, es­pe­cially when se­lected by jour­nal­ists with as much in­flu­ence as those at The Post.

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