The Immigration Language Wars

By Jerry Kammer on August 18, 2015

The first of four parts.

Public policy debates often feature clever terminology intended to frame the issue and thereby influence the way we think about it. We have negative framing with "death tax" instead of "estate tax" and "government takeover" instead of "national health insurance". And we have positive framing with "gaming" instead of "gambling" and "right to choose" instead of "abortion rights". If you change the name, you can change the frame, and that can change how the public responds.

The immigration debate has produced some important linguistic battles. The mother of all of them has been waged over the term "illegal immigrant".

It's a tale we can begin with the Associated Press's 2013 decision to change course with its Stylebook, the best-selling and constantly evolving Bible of newswriting. The Stylebook provides instruction on a broad spectrum of issues, from punctuation to spelling to word choice. Is it okay to say a woman's basketball team is using a man-to-man defense? Yes, says the Stylebook. But sports writers should avoid the trite description of homeruns as "dingers", "taters", or " bombs".

In the fall of 2012, the AP deemed it appropriate to use "illegal immigrant" to describe someone who was in the United States illegally. Deputy managing editor Tom Kent pointed to problems with other descriptors.

"Terms like undocumented and unauthorized can make a person's illegal presence in the country appear to be a matter of minor paperwork," Kent said. "Many illegal immigrants aren't 'undocumented' at all; they may have a birth certificate and passport from their home country, plus a U.S. driver's license, Social Security card or school ID. What they lack is the fundamental right to be in the United States."

The AP had laid down a marker, presenting its decision as a common-sense stand in the interests of precision, clarity, and objectivity. But its stand did not stand for long in the face of pressure of a campaign against it that claimed the term was inaccurate and inflammatory.

In the spring of 2013, as the Senate took up legislation to provide a path to citizenship, the AP changed its mind. It cancelled the long-standing "illegal immigrant" imprimatur. The revised Stylebook would read: "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."

Kathleen Carroll, the AP's senior vice president and executive editor, said the move reflected the organization's commitment to "ridding the Stylebook of labels". She said it reflected the same concerns that produced the decision to describe someone as diagnosed with schizophrenia rather than schizophrenic. "And that discussion about labeling people, instead of behavior, led us back to illegal immigrant again," she said.

The New York Times made a less definitive course change during roughly the same period. In late 2012, Phil Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards, defended "illegal immigrant" as "accurate, factual and as neutral as we can manage under the circumstances."

Corbett rejected the claim that "illegal immigrant" was factually wrong in many instances because the act of living in the country without a visa is a civil, rather than criminal offense. Corbett correctly noted that, "It is, in fact, illegal to enter, live or work in this country without valid documents. Some people worry that we are labeling immigrants as 'criminals' — but we're not. 'Illegal' is not a synonym for 'criminal.'" Corbett than added: "(One can even park 'illegally,' though it's not a criminal offense.)"

Public editor Margaret Sullivan approvingly observed that the Times had made "a judgment about clarity and accuracy, which readers hold so dear."

But after the AP's announcement, Sullivan announced that she too had changed her mind. In a response that seemed to indicate that she was acceding to the public pressure, she wrote, "So many people find it offensive to refer to a person with an adjective like "illegal" that I now favor the use of "undocumented or "unauthorized" as alternatives." Shortly thereafter, the Times announced that while it would not prohibit illegal immigrants, it would encourage reporters and editors to "consider alternatives when appropriate to explain the specific circumstances of the person in question, or to focus on actions" rather than labels."

Next: A Linguistic Bridge over Troubled Waters