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"Illegal Immigrant" or "Undocumented Worker"? What Ethnic Media Says About The Implications of Language

The AP Stylebook prefers "illegal immigrant," but the National Association of Hispanic Journalists advocates the term "undocumented immigrant."
 
 
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 The AP Stylebook states that the preferred term is “illegal immigrant” -- but that “illegal” should not be used as a noun. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists advocates the use of the term “undocumented immigrant” or “undocumented worker.” A campaign headed by the Applied Research Center and its news site ColorLines – called “Drop the ‘i’ Word” – considers “illegal” a slur and is calling on media outlets across the country to take a pledge to stop using the term.

But for editors of U.S. ethnic media -- whose news outlets serve the nation’s ethnic and immigrant communities, in multiple languages -- the choice may not be as clear. Undocumented immigrants may be described as anything from “living in hiding” in Punjabi to “illegal overstayers” in Korean.

Some ethnic media sectors have taken a stand on the issue: Spanish-language media, for example, generally use the term “undocumented.” But for many, the question of what term to use remains the individual choice of each writer and editor.

‘Undocumented’ in Spanish – Years Ahead of the English-Language Media

While English-language media is starting to debate the issue, Spanish-language media have used the term “inmigrantes indocumentados” (undocumented immigrants) for years.

“La Opinión never uses the term ‘illegal inmigrant.’ For us, it’s unacceptable,” said Amelia Estades-Santaliz, managing editor of the Los Angeles Spanish-language newspaper.

“We had this discussion 10 years ago, maybe more,” said Juan Antonio Ramos, executive editor of La Estrella En Casa in Fort Worth, Tex., which consistently uses the term “inmigrante indocumentado” (undocumented immigrant). “I think this is a healthy discussion and I hope English-language media start using the term we’ve been using for years.”

“It’s a decision every newsroom is going to have to make sooner or later,” said Alfredo Carbajal, chief editor of Al Día in Dallas, Tex., which has used the term “undocumented” since its founding in 2003.

But the newspaper’s editorial policy has not been without opposition by some readers. 

“There are many diverse sentiments about immigration, even within the Hispanic community,” said Carbajal. “We’ve had readers call in, saying, ‘By not calling illegal immigration “illegal,” you’re already taking a side.’”

Al Día’s response, he said, has been to be “careful” to publish content that is “accurate but also sensitive,” and to “represent all points of view” – including the perspectives of those who are anti-illegal immigration. 

“We shouldn’t label those people racist. We have to listen to their concern too,” said Carbajal.

‘Illegal’ and ‘Undocumented’ in Russian – From ‘Writing With Empathy’ to ‘Let’s Call Things as They Are’

The Russian newspaper Reklama in New York uses “illegal” and “undocumented” interchangeably. “But we don’t mean it derogatively when we use the term ‘illegal,’” said managing editor Leah Moses.

More important than the term, Moses said, is “the context you are using it in – if you are writing with empathy or if you are writing derogatively.”

Other Russian media outlets have an editorial policy to use the term “illegal.” 

Janna Sundeyeva, editor of San Francisco’s Russian-language newspaper Kstati, said her newspaper uses “the direct and honest word, ‘illegal,’ because it is actually illegal to cross the border of any country without proper documents.” 

“Let's call things as they are,” she said. “If we try to find ‘politically correct’ substitute words, well... Orwell already wrote about it in ‘1984,’ didn't he? I don't want to live in an Orwellian world. I came from it. I was there and I hate it,” she said. “Political correctness is killing this country slowly but surely.”

Sundeyeva immigrated with her family legally from the Soviet Union, which she calls “a country where the law almost didn't exist.”

“So, what do I think about the campaign to stop using the word ‘illegal’? First, it's a stupid campaign, it's a waste of time and money, it's giving people the bad impression that ‘law may or may not exist’ and that it’s not so bad to do illegal things.”

‘Illegal Overstayer’ in Korean – A Reflection of Korean Migration Patterns

Korean media often use the term “illegal overstayer,” rather than “illegal immigrant,” reflecting Korean migration patterns to the United States: Koreans generally arrive on a work or student visa, and the majority of those who are undocumented have overstayed their visa.

Nam Hong, an editor with The Korea Times in Oakland, says the Korean media tend to use the term “illegal” because it’s the most accurate term to describe people who are here illegally.

Hong said he sees “illegal” and “undocumented” as interchangeable, comparing them to the terms “black” and “African American.”

“Instead of debating the verbiage,” he said, “we would rather spend our energies helping immigrants who have been deported.”

‘Living in Hiding’ in Punjabi – Different Terms for Different Phases of Immigration

“In the Punjabi media, we do not use the word ‘illegal’ to describe undocumented immigrants,” said Balbir Singh, editor of Pardes Times in Fremont, Calif. “We have different words describing the different stages of the immigration process a person is in.”

Each of these terms has a different nuance to reflect various stages of immigration. For example, the Punjabi term for “living in hiding” is often used to describe undocumented workers who are living under the radar. The term “not permanent” -- literally, “not ripe or not mature” -- is used for immigrants who have a visa but no green card, for example asylum seekers, H1B visa workers, students applying for permanent residency.

‘Illegal’ in Vietnamese: ‘It’s the Shortest Translation’

Thuy Vu, CEO of the Vietnamese-language Radio Saigon Houston (900 AM) in Houston, Tex., says her station uses “di dan bat hop phap” (illegal immigrant) because it’s the shortest translation.

“Translating ‘undocumented immigrants’ (di dan khong-giay-to-hop-le) would be too long and hard to understand,” said Vu. “[It] makes it hard to say on the air.” 

The debate over the term “illegal,” she said, has not raised much interest from the Vietnamese community in Texas. “To be honest with you, this has never been an issue in our community…Perhaps in Texas, there aren't strong feelings about this issue like in California, so people don't discuss much about this.”

Hao-Nhien Vu, an editor with the Vietnamese-language newspaper Nguoi Viet, in Westminster, Calif., says his newspaper uses the two terms interchangeably. “It's really up to the individual writer and editor,” he said. “On stories that I personally edit, if it’s something that can be controversial (e.g. a new law barring the issuance of driver's license, or college financial aid), I use ‘di dân không giấy tờ’ (undocumented). If it’s pretty straightforward (somebody getting caught smuggling in an ICE sweep) I leave it the way the writer writes it, and it's usually ‘bất hợp pháp’ (illegal).”

‘Illegal’ in Chinese: Less Controversial Than the English Word

In Chinese, the term “illegal immigrant” is common and is generally seen as neutral. It is used to describe an immigrant’s status that is no longer legally valid, but does not necessarily imply that he or she is a criminal.

Kai Ping Liu, editor of the Chinese-language newspaper World Journal in San Francisco, said his newspaper doesn’t have an editorial policy on the matter, but the term they use most often is “illegal immigrant” to describe someone who does not have a legal immigration status in the United States, including those who entered the country legally but have overstayed or failed to maintain a legal status. 

He said that he has always used the term “illegal immigrant” in his reporting. But he has been using the term “undocumented immigrant” more in the past five years, he says, because he considers it to be more neutral and respectful, while the term “illegal immigrant” carries more negative connotations, since “illegal” means “someone broke the law.”

Following the massive immigration rights protests of 2006, the Sing Tao Daily in New York re-evaluated its use of the term “illegal” and made a conscious effort to use the term in a neutral manner, says editor-in-chief Ning Wang. Undocumented immigrants in New York, who make up many of the paper’s readers, have never complained about newspaper’s use of the term “illegal,” he says.

Today, the Sing Tao Daily New York does not have an editorial policy on which term to use, Wang said, but tries to differentiate between various groups of undocumented immigrants. The paper most commonly uses the phrase, “illegal immigrants” to refer to those who enter the country illegally, while those who have overstayed their visas are called “overstayers.”

‘Undocumented’ in Filipino – Even When It Isn’t Popular


Most Filipino media in the United States are in English, but the Tagalog slang term for undocumented, TNT (“tago ng tago,” or “always in hiding”), still crops up in conversation and some columns and broadcast segments. 

Cherie Querol Moreno, editor at large of Philippine News in San Francisco, says her newspaper uses “undocumented immigrant” and she often gets into “long discussions” with lawyers who are potential advertisers over why it's important to use the term -- to the detriment of revenue at times, she says.

“We only use ‘undocumented immigrants’ in news, features, columns, and editorials,” said Momar Visaya, editor of Asian Journal in New York. When contributors, like lawyers, use “illegal immigrants,” he says, Asian Journal doesn't change the copy. But the paper makes sure there's a disclaimer at the end of the article stating that the piece is only the opinion of the contributor, not the staff. 

“We have a media personality-contributor who uses the term TNT (Tagalog slang for ‘tago ng tago,’ or ‘always in hiding’) because her column is very informal. We let that stand, and again, we put the disclaimer,” Visaya said. “We believe no person is illegal, only undocumented.”

Elena Shore is an editor, Latino media monitor and translator for NAM. She graduated from Oberlin College in Spanish and Latin American Studies in 2001. She has written articles on immigration and Latino issues in English and Spanish, and monitors and translates stories from the Spanish-language press. Her work has appeared in Latino media outlets including La Opinion, La Raza and El Mensajero.