An evolving language

We have decided to switch our official terminology concerning immigrants who are in the country illegally.

Anna Weggel

One of the hardest decisions newspaper managers have to make deals with the ever-changing issue of language.

The Daily staff has been thinking for some time about what to do with the term “illegal immigrant.”

After hearing much opposition from student groups, organizations and general readers about the term, we decided to explicitly describe the action of the immigrants instead of lumping them into one category.

For example, we write peoples’ names and then clearly describe their action, such as entering the country with proper documentation, then staying past when the documentation expired.

Describing the action does work when stories are based on a few specific people, but oftentimes the entire group of people who are in the country illegally needs to be referred to and we have to use a term that can describe everybody.

Previously, we followed The Associated Press Stylebook’s entry on the subject, which uses the term “illegal immigrant.” This book is a collection of style-usage guidelines that many newspapers across the country use. It is updated every year.

The book says the term is “used to describe those who have entered the country illegally; it is the preferred term, rather than ‘illegal alien’ or ‘undocumented worker.’ “

But we understand this term is not perfect.

Many agree that “illegal immigrant” is a loaded, dehumanizing term. Whether we believe that is true is beside the point.

We understand the term could have negative connotations that sway the way readers think about an entire group of people.

We realize that hearing a group of people referred to over and over as “illegal” can drill into readers’ minds that these are bad, reckless individuals that do not deserve to be in our country.

We would never want to create this mindset for readers in anything we write about. Our goal is to create a level of understanding and fairness for all of our readers.

And so we decided to consider alternatives.

We wanted to find a phrase that in part names the people being referred to, but also describes the action that is making them the subject of a story.

That is why we have chosen “undocumented immigrant.” We believe it points out that we are referring to 1) an immigrant population that 2) does not have the proper documentation to be in the country.

There are many different instances in which immigrants can be in the country illegally. Whether immigrants entered the country illegally or came with legal documents that have since expired, we find that the reason they are indeed considered to be here illegally is from not having proper documentation.

Our goal is still to explicitly describe actions and people whenever possible without having to put everyone into a single category. But when this can’t be avoided, such as in statistics, in headlines or when referring to whole groups of people, we will now use “undocumented immigrants.” Of course, we will keep quotes as they were said.

We don’t think changing this language is a slippery slope to continual changes, but we are open to what our community has to say. We thought long and hard about this decision and we feel this is the most ethical move we can make.

We’re not out to favor one side or another. We’re not here to cater to a group of people that is mad at us. We’re not here to promote any sort of political agenda.

What we want is fair, unbiased terminology. Although we agree this term is not perfect, we believe we’ve found the best option.

Anna Weggel is the editor in chief. She welcomes comments at [email protected]