The 'illegal' index: Which news organizations still use the term 'illegal immigrant'?

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This might well be the only article you ever read on Fusion that contains the phrase "illegal immigrant." If necessary, we'll quote individuals who use the offensive term. But we'll never use it ourselves to describe people living and working in the United States without every necessary bureaucratic authorization.

The reason is simple: People who speed aren't "illegal drivers," nor are people who fall behind on their taxes "illegal filers." Even soldiers fighting against the United States without belonging to a formal national army are generally referred to as "unlawful" rather than "illegal" combatants. The use of the term "illegal" to refer to a person is a usage which is confined to exactly one group of people: Migrants. As a result, "illegal," when used as a noun, always means immigrants — people whose only crime is the victimless pursuit of liberty and prosperity.

What's more, the term "illegal immigrant" isn't even accurate. As activist and writer Jose Antonio Vargas points out, living in the US without the proper documents is not a criminal offense, it's a civil one. The term is also incredibly ill-defined: In December 2000, for instance, I was living in New York and was fired by my American employer, who was also the sponsor of my work visa. If I then went back to my New York apartment and simply lived there for a while, how long would it take me to become an illegal immigrant? An hour? A week? A year? Or would I first need to leave the country and then attempt criminal re-entry?


And yet, in spite of all the good reasons not to use the phrase, it is still very easy to find in the US press, even in headlines. The Washington Post's story on Barack Obama's new immigration policy, for instance, uses the phrase five times in the piece itself, as well as in the headline and caption of the accompanying video. (It was also used in an early headline for the article, which was later changed). In July, CBS News ran a story under the headline "Is the surge of illegal child immigrants a national security threat?" — as though simply being a child, with the wrong paperwork, is enough to make one an illegal person. And a quick search of the New York Times shows the term being used more than 600 times in just the past 12 months. That's despite the fact that for the past year and a half, the newspaper's official policy requests that reporters and editors "consider alternatives" to the term.

Progress is being made, however. Many major news organizations never use the words "illegal immigrant," including the AP, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. An informal Fusion survey has turned up many others, including both of our parent companies, Univision News and ABC News. Here's a chart we created of who stands where, which we'll update as we hear back from more news organizations:

Some context to go along with the chart: A ban on the term "illegal immigrant" doesn't mean it will never appear: It can still be used in direct quotes. After all, if you're quoting someone who's running for president, you need to be accurate about what term he or she uses. A ban just means that journalists will not be using the term.

Then there are news organizations in the yellow zone: Those that still allow "illegal immigrant" to be used though many of them urge reporters and editors to use other phrases. There's a wide range here: Newsweek generally avoids the term, for instance, while the Washington Post (which used to own Newsweek) says that it's acceptable, while acknowledging that some people find it offensive. The Daily Beast uses it but in principle prefers "undocumented" to "illegal"; Gawker, meanwhile, has no policy at all.


Finally, in the green zone, are news organizations where "illegal immigrant" is actually preferred usage: Reporters are told to use the phrase. "Illegal immigrant" has its own entry in the Reuters style guide, while the Wall Street Journal stylebook says this:

Illegal immigrant
It is the preferred term for a person who enters the U.S. illegally.
It is less extraterrestrial than illegal alien and less euphemistic than undocumented worker. But the latter term is an acceptable second reference for an immigrant who doesn't have the proper documents for U.S. residency or for employment.
Don't use illegal or illegals as a noun.


The Journal's deputy editor in chief, Matt Murray, confirmed to me that the paper uses "illegal immigrant" not only to refer to people who criminally enter the US without the proper documentation, but also to people who overstay their visas — something which is not a criminal offense.

As far as I know, US news organizations have only ever moved up this chart, and not down. Publications where the term was mandated have changed their minds and started discouraging it; places where it was discouraged have banned it. No major publication has started using it again after a period where it was banned. So although it's pretty clear where the media is moving on this issue, it's also evident that we have some way to go.