Amid the raging invective focused on the nation’s efforts to deal with unlawful immigration, a war of words wages in the undercurrent—a subtle struggle over the language used to define the discussion.
Are the millions of people in the United States who are not here lawfully “illegal” or are they “undocumented”?
The question is not mere semantics, activists and experts say: Choosing one over the other exposes allegiances and stokes the embers of animosity.
Take for example the ballots that await Maryland voters in this November’s election. Question 4—the referendum on Maryland’s version of the “Dream Act”—will ask whether the state should allow “undocumented immigrants” to be eligible for in-state tuition.
Immigrant advocates tend to abhor “illegal” as a racially charged epithet that dehumanizes the people it's applied to.
Their opponents deride “undocumented” as politically correct pandering, and most of the nation’s media outlets dismiss it as a euphemism that portrays a person’s lack of legal status as a mere afterthought, as if to diminish the severity of having sneaked across the border or overstayed a visa.
In newspeak, “illegal immigrant” is ostensibly the norm, per decree of the Associated Press Stylebook, the standard-bearer for newspaper reporters and editors.
Last year’s update to the AP Stylebook retained “illegal immigrant” despite continued pleas from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and other groups, reported Poynter.org.
“Undocumented suggests that the issue is more about paperwork than one’s legal right to be in a country,” AP’s David Minthorn told Poynter.
Immigrant activists are pushing back with the national Drop the I-Word campaign, which pressures media outlets to stop using the purportedly pejorative terms.
The U.S. Supreme Court rekindled the debate this summer by dodging it altogether: “Undocumented” and “illegal” were both conspicuously missing from the court’s June 25 ruling to uphold the core of Arizona’s controversial immigration law. The justices opted instead for “unlawful” and “unauthorized” as modifiers of the legalistic descriptor “alien.”
The court’s linguistic leapfrogging set off a polemical uproar as pundits pushed the primacy of one term over the other. A pair of op-eds on CNN.com neatly encapsulated the debate.
In the first, Charles Garcia saw the Supreme Court’s omission of “illegal” as the onset of a “humanistic approach” to eventual immigration reform and bluntly declared “illegal” to be nothing short of a racial slur.
“If you don't pay your taxes, are you an illegal? What if you get a speeding ticket? A murder conviction? No. You're still not an illegal. Even alleged terrorists and child molesters aren't labeled illegals,” Garcia wrote.
The rebuttal by Ruben Navarrette argued that “undocumented” is both inaccurate and absurd, while “illegal immigrant” is the more factual.
“The phrase is accurate. It's the shoe that fits. It's reality. And, as is often the case with reality, it's hard for some people to accept,” Navarrette wrote.