Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and founder of Define American, has recently reignited the debate around the use of the phrase “illegal immigrant,” arguing that the term is not only offensive but that it has also been used inaccurately because it criminalizes individuals rather than their actions.
And now, Vargas, a journalist himself, is calling on the media to stop using the term.
“Above all, for journalists who seek neutrality and fairness, using the term further politicizes an already political issue,” Vargas said at the annual Online News Association meeting on Sept. 21. “The term dehumanizes and marginalizes the people it seeks to describe.”
At The Daily Californian, we agree.
On Sunday, the Senior Editorial Board voted to no longer use the term “illegal immigrant” when reporting on immigration issues. Out of preference and habit, it has already been the practice of our reporters and editors to opt for the word “undocumented.”
As students of the University of California at Berkeley, we regularly report on issues of immigration in the state, and many of our peers themselves are undocumented students. Last fall, we rolled out a packaged multimedia feature named Dream State to analyze — and humanize — the California DREAM Act on our campus.
We believe that the modifier “illegal” unnecessarily offends our readership while the word “undocumented” is a more effective and objective way to describe one’s immigration status.
Last year, the Society of Professional Journalists passed a resolution urging all newsrooms to stop using the terms “illegal alien” and “illegal immigrant” after hearing an emotional plea from Rebecca Aguilar, a member of SPJ and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The organization, which has around 9,000 members nationwide, called the term “illegal alien” “offensive and bureaucratic” and described the phrase “illegal immigrant” as “politically charged.”
“Only the court system, not reporters and editors, can decide when a person has committed an illegal act,” the resolution states.
In recent years, some mainstream news sources, including the Miami Herald and the San Antonio News-Express, have stopped using the term while others, like the Associated Press and The New York Times, have refused to drop the term.
The influence of the media is unquestionable, and, as journalists, we must be constantly aware of that fact. Sometimes we have to take a step back, question the language we use and consider how it shapes public discourse.
Stephanie Baer is the editor in chief and president.