Starting today, a non-profit founded by Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist, activist, and undocumented immigrant, will begin monitoring the use of the phrase "illegal immigrant" in the media, with the goal of shifting the conversation around the issue.
"Right now, my two main targets, and I say that politely, are going to be The New York Times and the Associated Press," Vargas told reporters after his keynote address at the 2012 Online News Association Conference and Awards Banquet in San Francisco today.
Vargas, who has written about his own struggles with immigration status in The New York Times Magazine and Time, suggested that outlets use undocumented immigrant or engage in a conversation about alternatives to "illegal."
"The term dehumanizes and marginalizes the people it seeks to describe," Vargas said. "Think of it this way, in what other context do we call someone illegal?"
Vargas, who came to the U.S. from the Philippines when he was 12, cited the examples of underage drivers and people driving while intoxicated, neither of whom would be referred to as "illegal drivers" by the media.
"Ironically, describing an immigrant as 'illegal' is legally inaccurate," he said. "Being in a country without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one."
That distinction, despite being a long-standing precept of immigration law, has failed to gain traction in the vast majority of newsrooms across the country.
Speaking in San Francisco today, Vargas said that undocumented is the more neutral choice, but conceded that only a handful of major media outlets -- among them the Miami Herald, The Huffington Post and the San Antonio Express-News -- have dropped "illegal immigrant."
Julia Preston, the national immigration correspondent at The New York Times, says that she uses a mix of terms depending on the article and the topic.
"What we try to do is find neutral language to tell our immigration stories where, currently, there is no neutral ground on this issue," she said. "We use the term 'illegal immigrant' because the bottom line is that we're talking about a large group of people who are in the United States in violation of the law...the core of the problem here is they don't have legal status."
Increasingly, however, she's encountered readers who are uncomfortable with the use of the word "illegal."
"I have a growing number of readers who have a negative reaction, who feel offended by the term 'illegal immigration,' so I just try and be careful and accurate and thoughtful whenever I write a story, so I can find the language that will allow me to tell the story without jarring people."
In 2011, the Associated Press changed its style guide so that "illegal immigrant" would not be its preferred descriptor, but the term is still in frequent use; meanwhile, "undocumented immigrant" is not permitted.
Paul Colford, the director of media relations for the AP, explained the current editorial stance by email:
"We do not insist that the term be stamped on everyone who's here illegally. In fact, as in the case of a person who was brought here as a child without permission, the term can be misleading, since the person wasn't a willing 'immigrant' at all. In such a case, we might simply state the situation: He doesn't have legal permission to live in the United States, since his parents entered the country illegally (or without authorization)."
While the campaign by Vargas will start with the Times and the AP, it will have a much broader scope overall. Using the Define American website, people across the country will be able to report instances where local print, radio and television news outlets are using "illegal immigrant."
"The people who read and consume the news in their own local communities should be calling out these news agencies," Vargas said in a phone interview. "It needs to be at that level."
The editorial policy here at ABC/Univision is to use "undocumented" when referring to people in the country without authorization. Of our parent newsrooms, Univision uses the Spanish word for undocumented, "indocumentado," while ABC News typically uses "undocumented immigrant" but hasn't strictly adhered to that in the past.
"Our goal and policy is to use the term undocumented immigrant or worker, but there have certainly been instances where we have fallen short of that standard," said Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice president of ABC News.
Vargas said that part of the reason he decided to launch the campaign was his own background in journalism. Since coming out as undocumented in June 2011, he's heard from 15 other journalists with similar stories.
"The fact that we still have news organizations calling people 'illegal' signifies the simplistic nature in which we have this conversation," he said. "We're not just going to your schools and your churches, we're not just mowing your lawns. We're in your newsrooms."