Hispanic Journalists Group Protests Use of "Illegal" In Immigration Stories

March 31st, 2006 12:05 PM

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists is using the recent spate of immigration protests to remind their media bosses that it's very insensitive -- and inaccurate? -- to describe undocumented immigrants as "illegal aliens."

As protestors 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.

There is one obvious response to a news release like this: it underlines that these groups are political, not journalistic. These complaints about terms are not really about grammar or accuracy, they're about identity politics. It's about draining accuracy out of the story with politically correct weasel words. All the emotional outpouring about "dehumanizing" immigrants and casting them as strange and inhuman is taking personal (and ideological) offense, not instructing journalists about accuracy. It's lecturing about media manners -- don't be rude to illegal aliens, because they're not being rude to you -- and casting objectivity to the wind.