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The words

How do we describe those who are in the country illegally?

In the debate surrounding immigration, legal and illegal, finding the right words is difficult. There is no agreed-upon language to describe those whose live in the U.S. illegally.

In a roundtable discussion held by USA Today, their immigration reporter explained that legally speaking, an immigrant is someone who has a green card. People who enter on tourist, student or other non-permanent visas are called aliens by the law. That would make those who come or stay unlawfully “illegal aliens,” a term that is perceived as highly discriminatory by the immigrant community, an interpretation that is broadly accepted. “Alien” is seen as an outdated and unnecessarily harsh term and is hardly used by media outlets.

finding the right wordsThe term used by most mainstream media is “illegal immigrant.” President Obama has used this language, even in a context favorable to such immigrants, as CBS News reports:

“I’d like to create a situation where we’re dealing with illegal immigration, so that we don’t have illegal immigrants,” [Obama] said. “… And I want a comprehensive immigration plan that creates a pathway to achieve that.”

“Illegal” vs. “Undocumented”

The immigrant community prefers the term “undocumented immigrant.” This is how those in that situation call themselves. But there’s a problem with this term: It’s not fully correct. Some of those present in the U.S. illegally do have “documents.” They may be citizens of another state, or they entered on tourist visas and overstayed. Some use fraudulent documents.

I also wonder how clear this term is to people unfamiliar with the details of the immigration debate. “Undocumented” seems to cloud the issue.

Instead of “undocumented,” “unauthorized” describes this population more accurately. This the term the Department of Homeland Security uses in its recent reports. The widely respected research institution Pew Hispanic Center uses the two phrases interchangeably, its senior demographer Jeffrey Passel said (which hardly clarifies matters for me).

The political dimension

Immigrant advocates and those in favor of providing a way to legalize some or all of the roughly 12 million people who currently live in the U.S. illegally perfer to call them “undocumented.” Those in favor of limiting immigration turn to the term “illegal immigrant.” Those further to the right say “illegal alien.”

Finding neutral ground

This presents a dilemma to someone who wants to describe this population accurately without taking a side in this heated debate. I believe that I, as a journalist, am not here to tell people what to think, or which opinion to have about an issue. I want to present stories, facts and context so that readers can form their own opinion.

Therefore, I want to use words that are understandable, but neutral. I don’t want the language to distract from the content, and I don’t want people to turn away from a story because they think I’m trying to shove an opinion down their throat.

I turned to the Associated Press Stylebook (which defines word usage and style accepted across most mainstream media) for help. Here, I find this complex discussion summarized in barely a paragraph:

illegal immigrant Used to describe those who have entered the country illegally, it is the preferred term rather than illegal alien or undocumented worker.
Do not use the shortened term illegals.

(Sadly, the last sentence is necessary, as the video of the roundtable discussion at USA Today shows. I’m shocked any media outlet would actually use this term to describe people.)

I feel uneasy with this description. I know it’s a tired argument that “no person is illegal,” but it is true in a sense. Not the persons are illegal, their actions are. In the case of the young generation now coming of age, many did not even make this decision themselves, as they were brought into the U.S. by their parents as young children.

As the North Counrty Times writes

To immigrant rights advocates, the term [illegal] is a slur. They say the word dehumanizes immigrants and brands them as criminals, often without legal due process. It labels a person in a way that tax cheats and car thieves are not labeled, advocates say.

(The paper itself, however, uses the term illegal immigrants.)

My best attempt at a correct and non-discriminatory description is “persons who entered the country illegally or overstayed visa.” The challenge with this phrase is its length – I’ve just gone from two words to nine to describe this population. In writing, this makes for awkward constructions and boxy sentences.

In the end, I went with a mix of phrases, using both “unauthorized immigrant” and “illegal immigrant” as well as the longer description of “those who live in the U.S. illegally” and variations of it. I included a reference to the term “undocumented,” saying that this is the preferred description in the immigrant community.

I wish there was a better way to describe the immigrant students who are the subject of my piece and who I spent so much time with, a way that wouldn’t be hurtful, but also wouldn’t force me to take a side.

But for clarity and neutrality, this is the route I chose to take.

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