Petition to Drop 'Illegal' Delivered to New York Times

PHOTO: Jose Antonio Vargas and Mónica Novoa of Define American deliver two cardboard boxes to the New York Times, which they say contain a petition with over 70,000 signatures asking the media company to drop the term illegal immigrant.

Cristina Costantini

On Tuesday afternoon, a group of advocates against the use of the term "illegal immigrant" gathered outside The New York Times building in Times Square to deliver a petition of protest. Organizers said the petition, which asked the paper to stop using the phrase contained more than 70,000 signatures collected online.

Among those present were Jose Antonio Vargas, an immigration activist and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, who revealed his undocumented status a year and a half ago in the Times' pages, Mónica Novoa, the director of Define American, and Fernando Chavez, the eldest son of labor leader Cesar Chavez, who died exactly 20 years ago to the day.

For Fernando Chavez, the action was a way of commemorating his father.

"It's a symbolic gesture. The New York Times should have made this decision a long time ago. They should have been leading on this. " Chavez noted.

Six leaders in the 'Drop the I Word' movement waited at the company's security desk to deliver the petition, initially hoping to meet with Executive Editor Jill Abramson. Instead, New York Times lawyer Ellen Herb came down to pick up the petition, which filled two cardboard boxes.

"We brought this for you as a gift as well," said Vargas, handing Herb this poster emblazoned with the phrase "No human being is illegal" by artist Favianna Rodriguez.

The delivery of the petitions comes just weeks after the Associated Press, the largest news-gathering outlet in the world, dropped the term saying that it was part of the company's on-going attempt to rid their Stylebook of labels. That day, The New York Times also said that they would likely update their standards guidelines with "incremental" changes to "provide more nuance and options." But this hasn't yet happened.

Vargas, who made clear that the gathering was "not a protest," but a "polite" delivery of the petition also said that "the Times needs to get with the times."

Many news sources, including CNN, ABC, NBC, and USA Today have dropped the term in recent years. Fusion, the ABC-Univision joint venture, does not use "illegal immigrant" because we believe it dehumanizes those it describes and we find it to be linguistically inaccurate.

One of the advocates chosen to deliver the petition inside the building was Abraham Paulos, a representative of Families for Freedom, a network that helps immigrants fighting deportation.

"Once you call someone 'illegal' it's like you have no humanity and dignity, you're an illegal person, you're a contraband," he said. "That's just not how we should treat human beings."

UPDATE 4:22 PM: The New York Times has come up with "more detailed and nuanced stylebook guidelines" on the use of the term "illegal immigrant" after the paper had many discussions in recent months about the phrasing, according to Associate Managing Editor for Standards Phil Corbett. The announcement came the same day that advocates dropped off a petition protesting the paper's use of the term to the Times' offices.

"We're well aware of the debate over these terms, and we understand the sensitivity of this issue for many people. Our goal, on this and every topic, is to be as accurate, clear and impartial as possible in our reporting, including in the language we use," Corbett wrote. "Advocates on one side of this political debate have called on news organizations to use only the terms they prefer. But we have to make those decisions for journalistic reasons alone, based on what we think best informs our readers on this important topic. It's not our job to take sides.

Below is the new Times stylebook entry on "illegal immigrant," according to Corbett's email.

"illegal immigrant may be used to describe someone who enters, lives in or works in the United States without proper legal authorization. But be aware that in the debate over immigration, some people view it as loaded or offensive. Without taking sides or resorting to euphemism, consider alternatives when appropriate to explain the specific circumstances of the person in question, or to focus on actions: who crossed the border illegally; who overstayed a visa; who is not authorized to work in this country.

Unauthorized is also an acceptable description, though it has a bureaucratic tone. Undocumented is the term preferred by many immigrants and their advocates, but it has a flavor of euphemism and should be used with caution outside quotations. Illegal immigration, because it describes the issue rather than an individual, is less likely than illegal immigrant to be seen as troubling.

Take particular care in describing people whose immigration status is complex or subject to change – for example, young people brought to this country as children, many of whom are eligible for temporary reprieves from deportation under federal policies adopted in 2012.

Do not use illegal as a noun, and avoid the sinister-sounding alien."

CORRECTION: A prior version of this article described Mónica Novoa as the coordinator for the Drop the I-Word campaign. She is in fact the former coordinator of the Drop the I-Word campaign, and the current director of Define American.

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