Linguists Tell New York Times That 'Illegal' Is Neither 'Neutral' nor 'Accurate'

PHOTO: Young immigrants, including Gaby Perez, hand over paperwork to get guidance from immigration attorney Jose Penalosa for Obamas deferred action policy.

Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo

José Manuel Godínez-Samperio, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico says that he wants to be called "undocumented" because "illegal" is "dehumanizing," and "justifies the oppression against immigrants." For some, his mere preference for the term "undocumented" over "illegal" is irrelevant. But, the technical accuracy of terms may hold more weight in this ongoing debate over these words.

In response to the Associated Press and The New York Times' continued use of the term "illegal immigrant", a group of linguists have taken a stand, arguing that the phrase "illegal immigrant" isn't as neutral or accurate as the two media companies claim it to be.

After immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas launched a campaign to monitor the use of the term by major news outlets, The New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan started an investigation of her own. Sullivan called for readers to respond to the debate and interviewed immigration reporter Julia Preston, who said that while their standards book could use more flexibility, "illegal immigrant" is not wrong. "It's accurate and it considers the broad terms of the debate," Preston told Sullivan. "We shouldn't be banning an accurate term."

Jonathan Rosa, an assistant professor of linguistic anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, disagrees. A group of 24 scholars, led by Rosa, put out a statement last week arguing that "illegal immigrant" should not be the preferred phrasing because it's imprecise and frames the debate in narrow terms. "It is baffling to think that [The New York Times] would suggest 'illegal immigrant' is accurate and neutral," Rosa said in an interview with ABC/Univision. "The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act defines immigrants as people who have been lawfully admitted for permanent residence, so "legal immigrant" is a redundant concept and 'illegal immigrant' is oxymoronic," he noted.

"There is nowhere in the legal field that the phrasing 'illegal immigrant' has been the norm. However, that same phrasing has been part of certain political strategies," he said

"Illegal immigrant," while a bit older than the term "undocumented," is still relatively new in the history of the English language. (Check out this informal analysis of immigration terms in books via GoogleBooks.) "Illegal immigrant" appears to have been used for the first time in the New York Times in an article from 1897 (which also terms Chinese nationals, "Chinamen"). The "illegal immigrant" phrasing wasn't repeatedly used to describe a group of people until the late-1930's, when the British used it to categorize the Jews who were fleeing the Nazis and entering Palestine without authorization, Jose Antonio Vargas maintains. An informal search of the New York Times' archive surfaces very few results for the term until immigration levels rose in 1970's, when "illegal immigrant" and "illegal alien" became the paper's default descriptions for those without authorization in the country.

Many linguists, including Rosa, think that "illegal immigrant" is not preferable, because it is an outlier in our naming system for those people who have violated state and federal laws. It centers on the unlawfulness of the person, as opposed to their specific violation, argues Otto Santa Ana, a socio-linguist at UCLA.

"If we talk about a child who skips school, we don't say he's an illegal student," Santa Ana said in reference to truancy laws. "We call a person who crosses the street illegally a jaywalker, not an illegal walker." Linguists George Lakoff and Sam Ferguson suggest in their 2006 paper "The Framing of Immigration" that if the media is insistent on using "illegal immigrant," they also might consider the term "illegal employers," for those who give them work, in the name of linguistic fairness.

Most notably, Rosa and his fellow linguists don't like the term because they say it is polarizing and establishes a black-and-white framing of the larger immigration debate. New York Times' Lawrence Downes writes in an Op-Ed this week that he is conflicted over the use of "illegal" for this very reason.

Downes writes: "[The term illegal immigrant] taints everything that person does, and suggests an irreparable offense. How do you legalize an illegal person? This is what many people can't get their heads around, and why the simple act of legalization through punishment and reparation — paying a fine and back taxes, getting to the back of the citizenship line — is unthinkable to them."

Philip B. Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards at the The New York Times said in an email that "in general, though, it's not our goal to lead the way or be in the vanguard of promoting or spreading changes in language; we're mostly trying to reflect existing usage."

That has more or less been the case for the Times, over the years.

In a 1930 editorial, the newspaper wrote, "In our Style Book 'Negro' is now added to the list of words to be capitalized. It is not merely a typographical change; it is an act of recognition of racial self-respect for those who have been for generations in 'the lower case." 'Negro' was of course subsequently replaced by "colored" in the manual of style, which was then replaced by "black" and joined by "African American."

Yet, the New York Times style guide maintains that the term "undocumented, the preferred phrasing for ABC and Univision, is a "euphemism" and should be strictly avoided by writers. Santa Ana agrees that "undocumented" is a "euphemism" and says it has become just as politicized as the term "illegal immigrant." He suggests that media outlets move to the word "unauthorized," which he says is more accurate and less divisive.

"As journalists, they should seek to find terms that are not used by the partisans," Santa Ana said. "Or they too become complicit in that categorization."

Rosa, who agrees "unauthorized" is the most neutral term and accurate term, believes this debate over language is important because it will inform the way we conceive of immigrants and the way we create policy around them. "We need new ways of understanding immigration, not just new phrases for characterizing migrants' authorization status," Rosa noted. "This said, debates about terminology can open up important spaces for reconsidering the nature of immigration altogether. And a more humane approach to immigration should be of central concern in this nation of immigrants."

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