Stefano Delens, a U.S. permanent resident from Italy, objects to the term "alien" because he says it implies that immigrants are inhuman. (Video by Maryland Newsline's Rabiah Alicia Burks and Karen Carmichael)

Brad Botwin, the director of Help Save Maryland, a group strongly opposed to illegal immigration, says that "illegal alien" is an acceptable term officially used by the U.S. government. (Video by Maryland Newsline's Rabiah Alicia Burks and Karen Carmichael)

Finding the Right Language: What Should Journalists Call Immigrants in the U.S. Without Papers?

Maryland Newsline
Monday, Dec. 13, 2010


COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Four years ago, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists launched a campaign to change the terms that news media use to refer to people who enter the country illegally – from the Associated Press' recommended "illegal immigrant" and the more loaded "illegal alien" to "undocumented immigrant."


"It is much easier to dehumanize and to silence somebody when you're calling them an illegal," said Ivan Roman, executive director of the NAHJ.


"When you don't give credibility to people, and you don't give respect to people, it is really easy for politicians to not take them into account when they are establishing policy."


A recent analysis by Maryland Newsline of the frequency with which "illegal immigrant" turns up in U.S. newspapers and wire services revealed mixed results from the NAHJ campaign. Use of the term had declined since 2006 – but the term is still being used in significant numbers, as it has been for decades.


The term appeared 582 times in U.S. newspapers and wire services in a single week in October 2010. That was down from 2006, when 743 results turned up between Oct. 10 and Oct. 16. But it was still significantly higher than in 2000, when the term only appeared 107 times in that week.


Roman said he's not surprised by the continued use of "illegal immigrant" in the media – and of the term "illegal alien," which some publications still use. But he said the NAHJ campaign has made an impact.


That impact, though, didn't translate into an uptick in news usage of NAHJ's preferred term, "undocumented immigrant." Between Oct. 10 and Oct. 16, the phrase was used 36 times in newspaper and wire service accounts – down from 69 times in October 2006, and nearly even with the 33 times in 2000.


Meanwhile, news media's use of the term "illegal alien" was on the upswing, Newsline's analysis showed. It appeared 110 times in U.S. newspapers and wire services in that week in October 2010, up from 28 times in 2000.


"You guys have got to get language right," said linguist Otto Santa Ana, who finds both "illegal immigrant" and "undocumented immigrant" to be partisan.


Linguist Otto Santa Ana: "You guys have got to get language right." (Photo courtesy of Santa Ana)

Assistant Professor Stella Rouse: Politicians are well aware of how nuances in terms can affect outcomes of debates. (Photo courtesy of Rouse)
Journalists should try to find neutral terms that neither bias nor color the language for their readership, he said.


Deputy Standards Editor David Minthorn of the Associated Press defended use of the term "illegal immigrant." He said the AP Stylebook created its entry on "illegal immigrant" in 2004, in response to heightened debate over border security and the enforcement of immigration laws after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.


"Together the terms describe a person who resides in a country unlawfully by residency or citizenship requirements," Minthorn said in an e-mail. "Alternatives like undocumented worker, illegal alien or illegals lack precision or may have negative connotations. Illegal immigrant, on the other hand, is accurate and neutral for news stories."


But Santa Ana, a founding member of the César Chávez Center for Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the AP Stylebook is contradictory: it forbids using "illegal" as a noun but allows it as an adjective. Calling people illegal immigrants is only one step away from calling them illegals, he said.


"When you label a person as criminal, as illegal, it structures the way we think about those people," he said. "It's a strongly partisan perspective – it shouldn't be a term newspapers should be using."


Does it make a difference to use the term "illegal alien" as opposed to illegal immigrant or undocumented worker?


"Yes, absolutely it does," said linguist Jennifer Sclafani, whose research has examined language use in the press. "No matter which way you look at it, an alien is always an outsider."


The term immigrant can have positive connotations, Sclafani said; all Americans without Native American ancestry are descended from immigrants. But alien, she said, is inherently negative.


"You'll never hear people refer to their grandparents as aliens," Sclafani said.


Politicians and political organizations are well aware of how nuances in terms can affect the outcomes of debates. They use specific terms depending on the type of emotion they want to invoke, said Stella Rouse, assistant professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland.


Pro-immigrant groups prefer not to use any term with the word "illegal" attached to it, while conservative groups have used terms like "illegal alien," which can be considered offensive, she said.


"The way terms are used, it's going to frame the debate," Rouse said.


Santa Ana prefers "unauthorized immigrant," which he says doesn't soft-pedal the issue of people entering and staying in the country without permission, but also doesn't characterize them as felons.


"It [connotes] more than not having papers, but it's less than being criminal," he said.


Most of the stories published between Oct. 10 and Oct. 16, 2010, that used "illegal aliens" referred to immigrants in general terms. When an ethnic group was clearly identified, however, it was always Hispanic.


"Domingo Salazar and Norma Mendez, both illegal aliens, pleaded guilty in July to federal charges of smuggling women from Mexico and putting them on the street as prostitutes," the New York Post reported on Oct. 14.


United Press International also reported on the story that day, saying, "Illegal aliens Domingo Salazar and his wife, Norma Mendez, allegedly ran the prostitution ring from their New York apartment."


An Oct. 12 story in the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier used "illegal immigrants" throughout but "illegal aliens" to clarify a quote: "If you really want to say you don't want them (illegal aliens), sign here," it quoted Linda Rouvet, who was calling for immigration reform after her son was killed in a car accident with an illegal immigrant from Mexico.


"In most people's mind in this country," Roman said, "given the context of what's going on and giving the crossing of the border of Mexico, which is what the media focus on, [illegal immigrant] is the equivalent to Latino, and that's what we're fighting against now."


The NAHJ first saw anti-immigrant groups using "illegals" more and more in 2004 and 2005, Roman said. "Then the term started being used by politicians, and then by some in the mainstream media," he said.


Between 2004 and 2006, several controversial congressional bills on immigration reform sparked protests and demonstrations across the country that garnered national media attention. During the first half of 2006, millions of immigrants marched to protest a House bill that would have classified all illegal immigrants as felons, while some anti-immigration marches were held in response.


In 2006, the NAHJ drafted a statement condemning the use of the word "illegal" in conjunction with immigrants and wrote letters to news organizations. Some editors and TV stations responded, asking the NAHJ for advice on the best terminology and how to cover the broader subject of immigration.


The NAHJ didn't quantify the results of its campaign, but members said they did see a decrease in the use of the term "illegals" by the media, Roman said. The NAHJ directly contacts news organizations that still occasionally use the term and suggests that they change their style, he said.


"It's the kind of thing that has to be instituted at that particular medium as a matter of style," Roman said. "So that no matter who's there, they are following the same guidelines."


Although AP makes its recommendation, it's up to each news organization's discretion on which terms journalists will use.


The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette makes a clear distinction between "immigrant" and "alien" in its house style, said International Editor Yavonda Chase. "Immigrant" is only used to describe people who intend to permanently remain in the U.S., she said. Since personal intentions can be difficult to determine in news stories, "alien tends to be used more often," she said.


Sometimes that can be very often: one story in the Democrat-Gazette, published Oct. 16, 2010, used "illegal aliens" eight times in 533 words.


The very concept of illegal immigration only dates to the 1920s, said Mae Ngai, a professor of history at Columbia University who focuses on immigration.


"Everybody came legally [before that], because there were no restrictions," she said. The only exception was for Chinese immigrants, when public animosity led to the exclusion of Chinese laborers in the late 19th century.


Between 1880 and World War I, only 1 percent of the millions of immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island were turned away, Ngai said -- if they had a contagious disease or a criminal record. New arrivals didn't need a visa, green card, or even a passport, she said.


Once immigrants were required to provide documentation in 1924, "undocumented" or "illegal" immigrants came into existence, Ngai said, and the terms entered the public discourse.


The news media must be more responsible with which terms they decide to use, Rouse said.


"They're information conduits, and they are carrying the message to the people."


1 States News Service 11
2 Associated Press* 10
3 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette 8
4 Idaho Statesman 4
5 Charlotte Observer 3
6 Chicago Daily Herald 3
7 City News Service, San Diego 3
8 Evening Sun (Hanover, Pa.) 3
9 Sacramento Bee 3
10 Chattanooga Times Free Press 2

*includes Associated Press, Associated Press Online, and Associated Press State & Local Wire.
Source: LexisNexis Academic Database; Compiled by Maryland Newsline's Karen Carmichael

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