Linguists Tell New York Times That 'Illegal' Is Neither 'Neutral' nor 'Accurate'

PHOTO: Young immigrants, including Gaby Perez, hand over paperwork to get guidance from immigration attorney Jose Penalosa for Obamas deferred action policy.

José Manuel Godínez-Samperio, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico says that he wants to be called "undocumented" because "illegal" is "dehumanizing," and "justifies the oppression against immigrants." For some, his mere preference for the term "undocumented" over "illegal" is irrelevant. But, the technical accuracy of terms may hold more weight in this ongoing debate over these words.

In response to the Associated Press and The New York Times' continued use of the term "illegal immigrant", a group of linguists have taken a stand, arguing that the phrase "illegal immigrant" isn't as neutral or accurate as the two media companies claim it to be.

After immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas launched a campaign to monitor the use of the term by major news outlets, The New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan started an investigation of her own. Sullivan called for readers to respond to the debate and interviewed immigration reporter Julia Preston, who said that while their standards book could use more flexibility, "illegal immigrant" is not wrong. "It's accurate and it considers the broad terms of the debate," Preston told Sullivan. "We shouldn't be banning an accurate term."

Jonathan Rosa, an assistant professor of linguistic anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, disagrees. A group of 24 scholars, led by Rosa, put out a statement last week arguing that "illegal immigrant" should not be the preferred phrasing because it's imprecise and frames the debate in narrow terms. "It is baffling to think that [The New York Times] would suggest 'illegal immigrant' is accurate and neutral," Rosa said in an interview with ABC/Univision. "The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act defines immigrants as people who have been lawfully admitted for permanent residence, so "legal immigrant" is a redundant concept and 'illegal immigrant' is oxymoronic," he noted.

"There is nowhere in the legal field that the phrasing 'illegal immigrant' has been the norm. However, that same phrasing has been part of certain political strategies," he said

"Illegal immigrant," while a bit older than the term "undocumented," is still relatively new in the history of the English language. (Check out this informal analysis of immigration terms in books via GoogleBooks.) "Illegal immigrant" appears to have been used for the first time in the New York Times in an article from 1897 (which also terms Chinese nationals, "Chinamen"). The "illegal immigrant" phrasing wasn't repeatedly used to describe a group of people until the late-1930's, when the British used it to categorize the Jews who were fleeing the Nazis and entering Palestine without authorization, Jose Antonio Vargas maintains. An informal search of the New York Times' archive surfaces very few results for the term until immigration levels rose in 1970's, when "illegal immigrant" and "illegal alien" became the paper's default descriptions for those without authorization in the country.

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