Don't mince words

If an immigrant is here illegally, he's an 'illegal immigrant'

There’s a proper place for euphemisms. That’s why a person says, “I have to go to the bathroom” without sharing in detail what will occur in the bathroom.


Journalism is much less accommodating of euphemisms. As a journalist, Jose Antonio Vargas should know that.

Instead, Vargas is fighting for watering down the language with vague descriptions. Vargas, who emigrated from the Philippines when he was 12, is calling upon two of journalism’s heavy hitters – The New York Times and the Associated Press – to stop using the term “illegal immigrant” to describe a person who is in the United States – well, illegally.

That includes Vargas. When his mother sent him to America to live with his grandparents, he lacked the legal paperwork for citizenship. Until publicly admitting his illegal status last year, he had been skating by on false documents. He doesn’t appear eager to pursue legal U.S. citizenship.

“Ironically, describing an immigrant as ‘illegal’ is legally inaccurate,” Vargas said recently in a column for Time magazine. “Being in a country without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one.”

He doesn’t mention what civil offenses and criminal offenses have in common – they’re both against the law. And you don’t need a thesaurus to pick a synonym for “against the law” – it’s “illegal.”

Vargas also believes that the term “illegal immigrant” “dehumanizes and marginalizes the people it seeks to describe.” He prefers the term “undocumented immigrant.”

So to what absurd extreme would he like to verbally obscure law-breaking? Car thieves, perhaps? Imagine a police officer telling this to a victim: “Sorry, ma’am, this isn’t a car theft. It’s just an undocumented borrowing.”

To the credit of AP and the Times, for the most part they’re not budging.

AP nuanced its description well before Vargas’ most recent agitation. As reported previously by Mallary Jean Tenore, an associate editor with the nonprofit journalism school The Poynter Institute:

“Prior to the update, the (AP) Stylebook said ‘illegal immigrant’ should be used ‘to describe someone who has entered the country illegally.’ Now, it says the term should also be used to describe anyone who “resides in a country in criminal or civil violation of immigration law. Additionally, it says that ‘living in the country without legal permission’ is an acceptable variation of ‘illegal immigrant.’ ”

Phil Corbett, the Times’ associate managing editor for standards, explained his paper’s stance to Poynter:

“(I)n referring in general terms to the issue of people living in the United States without legal papers, we do think the phrases ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘illegal immigration’ are accurate, factual and as neutral as we can manage under the circumstances,” Corbett said. “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.’ (One can even park ‘illegally,’ though it’s not a criminal offense.)

“Proposed alternatives like ‘undocumented’ seem really to be euphemisms – as though this were just a bureaucratic mix-up that can easily be remedied,” Corbett said.

It’s rare indeed when we come down on the same side as the Times on an issue.



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