As the debate over a new immigration bill preoccupies Washington, a quieter debate over the use of the term “illegal immigrant” has stirred up the country’s newsrooms.
This month, The Associated Press announced it would eliminate the use of “illegal immigrant” entirely. The news agency wrote, “Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use ‘illegal’ only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant.”
On Tuesday, The New York Times updated its policies on how it uses the phrase “illegal immigrant” in its coverage. The newspaper did not go as far as The Associated Press, and it will continue to allow the phrase to be used for “someone who enters, lives in or works in the United States without proper legal authorization.” But it encourages reporters and editors to “consider alternatives when appropriate to explain the specific circumstances of the person in question, or to focus on actions.”
Philip B. Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards, who oversees The Times’s style manual, made the announcement on Tuesday shortly after a group staged a protest in front of The New York Times headquarters and delivered more than 70,000 signatures to Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The Times, asking her to end the use of the phrase.
Mr. Corbett said in a statement that editors had spent months deliberating the updated style change. He said he shared these changes “with key reporters and editors over the last couple of weeks.” He said he recognized how sensitive this issue is for readers.
This nuanced approach to the term “illegal immigrant” was far from what the protesters who appeared outside of the Eighth Avenue entrance to The Times building had sought. Four protesters held signs that read “No Human Being is ‘Illegal’ Drop the I-Word.”
Fernando Chavez, son of the Mexican-American activist Cesar Chavez, flew in from Northern California for the protest to represent the views of his mother, Helen Fabela Chavez.
He said the widespread use of “illegal immigrant” represented one of the few times his mother had “displayed an opinion” about an issue. “It dehumanizes the individual and it’s counterproductive,” he said of the phrase.
Among the protesters was Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who emphasized that he wanted Tuesday’s protest to remain civil. He revealed that he was living undocumented in the United States in an article that ran in The New York Times Magazine in June 2011 after his former employer, The Washington Post, decided not to run the story. Since then, he has spoken publicly about being undocumented. He is producing a documentary on the topic.
“I have a lot of respect for The New York Times,” Mr. Vargas said. “The New York Times published my essay after that Washington Post rejected it.” But he said he felt that The Times needed to make some changes. “The New York Times needs to get with the times.”
Last fall, when Mr. Vargas spoke at a San Francisco conference held by the Online News Association, he started to challenge the use of the term illegal immigrant in the news media. Shortly afterward, he also exchanged e-mails with Margaret Sullivan, The Times’s public editor, about the phrase. She wrote in an Oct. 2, 2012 article, “I see no advantage for Times readers in a move away from the paper’s use of the phrase ‘illegal immigrant.’ ”
Since then, discussions have circulated throughout the news media about the use of the phrase. Julia Preston, The Times’s immigration reporter, said in a blog post written by Ms. Sullivan in September that the paper needed “a little more flexibility.” But she said “we should use the term at times — it is accurate.”
The changes announced by Mr. Corbett to the stylebook suggested caution when looking for alternatives to “illegal immigrant.”
" ‘Unauthorized’ is also an acceptable description, though it has a bureaucratic tone,” Mr. Corbett said. " ‘Undocumented’ is the term preferred by many immigrants and their advocates, but it has a flavor of euphemism and should be approached with caution outside quotations.” The stylebook also calls for special care to be taken with those who have a complicated or shifting status, like those brought to the United States as children.
“Advocates on one side of this political debate have called on news organizations to use only the terms they prefer,” Mr. Corbett said. “But we have to make those decisions for journalistic reasons alone, based on what we think best informs our readers on this important topic.” He added: “It’s not our job to take sides.”
Some of the protesters outside The New York Times represented people with complicated immigration statuses themselves. Mikhel A. Crichlow, the 27-year-old co-chairman of the International Youth Association, said he appeared on Tuesday because he was undocumented and could not work in the field he trained in, which is architecture. Mr. Crichlow said he moved to New York City 12 years ago when the city’s Department of Education recruited his mother from Trinidad and Tobago to work as a schoolteacher. While Mr. Crichlow’s mother is in the country legally and about to qualify for her green card, Mr. Crichlow has become too old to remain here legally.
“The ‘illegal’ word conjures up the wrong associations for people,” Mr. Crichlow said. “I’m not authorized to work because of my status.”
Mr. Vargas said he had mixed emotions about The New York Times’s updated policy.
“The New York Times can’t have it both ways,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the bottom line is, I am for reporters, including reporters at The New York Times, to be as descriptive and contextual as possible.”
Originally posted at the New York Times.