ESTHER CEPEDA: Terminology for ‘illegal immigrants’ stirs furor

By ESTHER CEPEDA

CHICAGO – Never mind the actual issue of how to deal with unwieldy immigration laws or their reform, today let’s look at the long-brewing war between those who use the terms “illegal immigrants” or “illegal aliens” and those who prefer “undocumented immigrants.”
The latest dust-up occurred a few weeks ago after The Fresno Bee published a seven-day series that took a nuanced, balanced and honest look at issues surrounding illegal immigration in California’s Central Valley. Despite the tour-de-force reporting that exposed the stark contradictions defining the issue from economic, personal, bureaucratic and political perspectives, the hot story turned out to be that many readers were angered by the newspaper’s use of the term “illegal immigrant.”
One particularly outraged reader called for a boycott and started a social media campaign that went viral over the long Thanksgiving weekend, spurring more impassioned pleas for news media to stop using the terms “illegal aliens” and “illegal immigrants.” Many advocacy organizations and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists favor “undocumented worker” or “undocumented immigrant,” terms that rile those who feel their overt political correctness masks their obvious truth. Others are simply followers of the newspaper industry-standard Associated Press Stylebook, or those who don’t see what the big deal is.
Ferocious debates about the terminology sprung up when illegal immigration once again became a divisive political issue after Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner sponsored a bill in 2005 that, had it become law, would have cracked down on those who assisted illegal immigrants.
The term “alien” went from being apolitical technical jargon that originated in the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act to one that some now consider a slur – because it has been used that way by many who are against either illegal or legal immigration.
The AP has responded to the Fresno Bee incident, as well as to other instances in which readers revolted against news stories or headlines using the controversial terms, with the same long-standing guidance. The news cooperative considers “illegal immigrant” neutral while discouraging “illegal alien,” “undocumented workers” and “illegals,” due to a lack of precision.
The “undocumented” descriptors are euphemistic, but at least they aren’t dehumanizing such as the term I most dislike: the free-standing “illegals.” Though it may be only shorthand to some, I’ve found that people who use the term generally intend it to be an insult. Then there are the federal terms “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant,” which are the most common targets of readers’ ire, because they are the most widely used.
“Illegal” is the word the government uses to describe the immigration status of people who don’t have the federal documents to show they are legally entitled to work, visit or live here.
“Alien,” a term freely used in our current immigration laws, owes its origins to the hotly debated Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which, according to Aziz Rana, assistant professor of law at Cornell University and an immigration historian, created the first government infrastructure for criminalizing and deporting noncitizens. But at the time “alien” was not thought of as an epithet or as demeaning because the term was closely related to resident alien voting rights. Rana said, “It wasn’t until the 1920s when the term became associated with repatriation based on race or ethnicity.”
Even the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services uses the terms “undocumented,” “without status” and even “lawful permanent resident” instead of the formal and perfectly respectable “legal permanent resident” in some of its written communications. A spokesperson couldn’t recall when the language softened – there was no formal announcement in the past few years – but she said that when USCIS and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, speak officially, both rely on the terms used in the federal statutes that determine agency policy.
Words do matter, but I wish those who have taken up this cause would drop their headline-grabbing complaints about the technical terms “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant.” The vile name-calling that tries to pass for an immigration debate has taken some people to the ends of their patience, but of all immigration-related issues this is the one least deserving of anyone’s passion and time. It’s a distraction that takes much-needed attention away from discussing real immigration law reforms that could greatly benefit both new and existing citizens.

Contact Esther Cepeda at her e-mail address, estherjcepeda@washpost.com. She is syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group.