Why non-partisan immigration coverage is impossible

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Writing about immigration policy is hard, for two reasons: It's difficult to be accurate, and it's all but impossible for the language not to be politically charged.

Fusion has found many news organizations that ban the use of the term "illegal immigrant" or at least which say they do. But bans are hard to enforce: Vigilant copy editors are a dying breed. And anything short of a ban seems pointless. At the Washington Post, for instance, use of the term is discouraged, on the grounds that many people find it offensive. And yet here's a screenshot from one of their videos:

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

It seems that the Washington Post's policy on "illegal immigrant" is the newspaper equivalent of Don't Ask Don't Tell: A well-meaning idea that, in practice, only serves to make the situation worse.

It's important to understand why so many publications are hesitant to ban the term outright — and why some, including Reuters, actually have it as preferred usage. Some people, like the New York Times's public editor, Margaret Sullivan, aver that the phrase "is clear and accurate." That's a stretch. For one thing, it requires the reader to understand that all criminal acts are illegal, but not all illegal acts are criminal. In reality, of course, most people do not understand that.

Furthermore, Sullivan's position requires believing that "illegal" is regularly used in a similar manner elsewhere in the paper: Her example is "illegal tenant," which, she says, is "another phrase you could have seen in Times articles or headlines". Let's run the numbers on that: "illegal immigrant" has been used in the New York Times roughly 608 times in the past 12 months, despite the fact that the paper's reporters and editors are urged to "consider alternatives" before using it. "Illegal tenant," on the other hand, has been used exactly once. If a news organization is referring to people as being illegal, you can safely bet the subject is immigration.

Sullivan's "clear and accurate" defense is at heart an ex post rationalization: A journalist wants to use the term, and then conjures up reasons why she should be allowed to do so. But even if you accept that, the question remains: Why would journalists want to use the term? And actually, there's a good, if unsatisfying, answer to that question, which is just that "illegal immigrant" has become a commonly-used phrase.


The English language changes and evolves more than any other in the world, and it constantly invents new words while changing the meaning of old ones. (Just give up already, you "hopefully" purists.) "Illegal immigrants" is what you would say, in conversation, if you weren't policing yourself, especially if you're not an immigrant yourself and don't know many immigrants personally. It's the term you'd use, if you weren't really thinking about it, on Facebook, or in an email to a friend. By taking a vast and diverse population and putting those people into a neat little "illegal" pigeonhole, it's easy to look at the issue in a comfortably black-and-white manner, at least if you don't think too hard. They're here, they're illegal, they shouldn't be here, end of story. (Of course, when such people are asked to think a little harder, hilarity can result.)

This of course is exactly why the term is so political. The more that "illegal immigrant" becomes common currency, the easier it is to think about immigration in terms of law enforcement, and deportation, and, basically, cracking down on People Who Are Illegal, rather than thinking about the millions of human stories here, the individuals who have only ever known life in the USA, the ease of inadvertently falling out of status, and the enormous hardship that can be involved in returning to a "home" which is often no home at all. And so on.


Of course, what this means is that policies banning "illegal immigrant", and concentrate instead on precisely those individual stories, are equally political, just in the other direction. It's almost impossible for the language you use not to be partisan, one way or the other. Especially since the drily technical term — "illegal alien" — is also highly inflammatory. The lawyer and language maven Bryan Garner, author of the book Garner's Modern American Usage, is simply wrong when he says that "Illegal alien is not an opprobrious epithet": While he might be narrowly correct in a legal context, the connotation of "alien" with "extraterrestrial" is firmly established at this point, and only serves to magnify and exacerbate the otherness of the individuals concerned.

Even if you stop using "illegal immigrant," there are many more hurdles left to clear. Is "undocumented immigrant" OK? Not really: While "indocumentado" is a reasonably natural word in Spanish, "undocumented" is a word that feels, well, alien to just about all native English speakers. And "undocumented" is also even more inaccurate than "illegal": As anybody who has navigated the US immigration system can tell you, the process of going out of status involves many, many documents. Yes, there are immigrants who arrive illegally in this country with no papers at all — but the use of "undocumented immigrants" implies that they're pretty much the whole population we're talking about, and they're not — not by a long shot. (All of those Canadians, for example, the so-called "illegal eh-liens", are documented, one way or another.) So I basically agree with the LA Times, which has banned not only "illegal immigrant" but also "undocumented immigrant."


For me, the least dirty shirt, if we need to talk about this disparate group en masse, is "unauthorized immigrants": It's less stilted than “undocumented," and also has the advantage that it doesn’t sound like a euphemism for “illegal”. But I don't love it. And a glance at that Washington Post screenshot shows that there's lots more agita where "illegal immigrant" came from. Look at that headline at the bottom: "Illegal immigrants can start applying for delayed deportations this spring". Delayed deportation? Now there's a phrase that needs a lot of unpacking. In the real world, things need to be scheduled before they can be delayed. If something is delayed, that means that it happens at a certain time which is later than the original time at which it was originally meant to have happened. But that's clearly not what's going on here: It's not like we're dealing with a world where millions of immigrants were scheduled to be deported in, say, 2015, and that deportation date has now been pushed back three years.

The upshot of all this is that you simply can't write about immigration policy in a plain-English, non-partisan manner, the kind of writing most journalists aspire to. If you're a news organization which is happy to have a point of view on this subject — if you're Fusion, say, or Fox News — then that isn't too much of a problem: You just opt for the plain-English, partisan approach. But if you're the New York Times, or the BBC, then the problem is pretty much intractable. Because to write about this subject is to express a view on it.

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