While this article was originally intended as a heads-up for journalists, we are sharing it in the hopes that our readers will examine more closely how language can subtly reveal the attitudes or acceptance of insensitive practices on the part of the news media.
Washington, D.C. — As protesters march in the streets and debate intensifies in Congress over how to fix the nation’s immigration laws, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists calls on our nation’s news media to use accurate terminology in its coverage of immigration and to stop dehumanizing undocumented immigrants.
NAHJ is concerned with the increasing use of pejorative terms to describe the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States. NAHJ is particularly troubled with the growing trend of the news media to use the word “illegals” as a noun, shorthand for “illegal aliens”. Using the word in this way is grammatically incorrect and crosses the line by criminalizing the person, not the action they are purported to have committed. NAHJ calls on the media to never use “illegals” in headlines.
Shortening the term in this way also stereotypes undocumented people who are in the United States as having committed a crime. Under current U.S. immigration law, being an undocumented immigrant is not a crime, it is a civil violation. Furthermore, an estimated 40 percent of all undocumented people living in the U.S. are visa overstayers, meaning they did not illegally cross the U.S. border.
In addition, the association has always denounced the use of the degrading terms “alien” and “illegal alien” to describe undocumented immigrants because it casts them as adverse, strange beings, inhuman outsiders who come to the U.S. with questionable motivations. “Aliens” is a bureaucratic term that should be avoided unless used in a quote.
NAHJ, a 2,300-member organization of reporters, editors and other journalists, addresses the use of these words and phrases by the news media in its Resource Guide for Journalists. The following are excerpts for some of the terms prevalent in the current news coverage:
A word used by the U.S. government to describe a foreign-born person who is not a citizen by naturalization or parentage. People who enter the United States legally are called resident aliens and they carry alien registration cards also known as “green cards,” because they used to be green.
While Webster’s first definition of the term “alien” is in accordance with the government’s interpretation, the dictionary also includes other, darker, meanings for the word, such as “a non-terrestrial being,” “strange,” “not belonging to one,” “adverse,” “hostile.” And the Encyclopedia Britannica points out that “in early times, the tendency was to look upon the alien as an enemy and to treat him as a criminal or an outlaw.” It is not surprising then that in 1798, in anticipation of a possible war with France, the U.S. Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which restricted “aliens” and curtailed press freedoms. By 1800 the laws had been repealed or had expired but they still cast a negative shadow over the word.
In modern times, with science-fiction growing in popularity, “alien” has come to mean a creature from outer space, and is considered pejorative by most immigrants.
Avoid. Alternative terms are “undocumented worker,” or “undocumented immigrant.” The pertinent federal agencies use this term for individuals who do not have documents to show they can legally visit, work or live here. Many find the term offensive and dehumanizing because it criminalizes the person rather than the actual act of illegally entering or residing in the United States. The term does not give an accurate description of a person’s conditional U.S. status, but rather demeans an individual by describing them as an alien. At the 1994 Unity convention, the four minority journalism groups ñ NAHJ, Asian American Journalists Association, Native American Journalists Association and National Association of Black Journalists ñ issued the following statement on this term: “Except in direct quotations, do not use the phrase illegal alien or the word alien, in copy or in headlines, to refer to citizens of a foreign country who have come to the U.S. with no documents to show that they are legally entitled to visit, work or live here. Such terms are considered pejorative not only by those to whom they are applied but by many people of the same ethnic and national backgrounds who are in the U.S. legally.”
While many national news outlets use the term “illegal immigrant,” this handbook calls for the discussion and re-evaluation of its use. Instead of using illegal immigrant, alternative labels recommended are “undocumented worker” or “undocumented immigrant.” Illegal immigrant is a term used to describe the immigration status of people who do not have the federal documentation to show they are legally entitled to work, visit or live here. People who are undocumented according to federal authorities do not have the proper visas to be in the United States legally. Many enter the country illegally, but a large number of this group initially had valid visas, but did not return to their native countries when their visas expired. Some former students fall into the latter category. The term criminalizes the person rather than the actual act of illegally entering or residing in the United States without federal documents. Terms such as illegal alien or illegal immigrant can often be used pejoratively in common parlance and can pack a powerful emotional wallop for those on the receiving end. Instead, use undocumented immigrant or undocumented worker, both of which are terms that convey the same descriptive information without carrying the psychological baggage. Avoid using illegal(s) as a noun.
Avoid. Alternative terms are “undocumented immigrant” or “undocumented worker.” This term has been used to describe the immigration status of people who do not have the federal documentation to show they are legally entitled to work, visit or live here. The term criminalizes the person rather than the actual act of illegally entering, residing in the U.S. without documents.
Similar to reporting about a person’s race, mentioning that a person is a first-generation immigrant could be used to provide readers or viewers with background information, but the relevancy of using the term should be made apparent in the story. Also, the status of undocumented workers should be discussed between source, reporter and editors because of the risk of deportation.
Preferred term to “illegal immigrant,” “illegal(s)” and “illegal alien.” This term describes the immigration status of people who do not have the federal documentation to show they are legally entitled to work, visit or live here. Some Latinos say this term more accurately describes people who are in the United States illegally because the word points out that they are undocumented, but does not dehumanize them in the manner that such terms as “aliens” and “illegals” do.
Preferred term to “illegal alien,” “illegal immigrant,” or “illegal(s).” This term describes the immigration status of people who do not have the federal documentation to show they are legally entitled to work, visit or live here.
This article was originally published by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists