Petition to Drop 'Illegal' Delivered to New York Times

UPDATE 4:22 PM: The New York Times has come up with "more detailed and nuanced stylebook guidelines" on the use of the term "illegal immigrant" after the paper had many discussions in recent months about the phrasing, according to Associate Managing Editor for Standards Phil Corbett. The announcement came the same day that advocates dropped off a petition protesting the paper's use of the term to the Times' offices.

"We're well aware of the debate over these terms, and we understand the sensitivity of this issue for many people. Our goal, on this and every topic, is to be as accurate, clear and impartial as possible in our reporting, including in the language we use," Corbett wrote. "Advocates on one side of this political debate have called on news organizations to use only the terms they prefer. But we have to make those decisions for journalistic reasons alone, based on what we think best informs our readers on this important topic. It's not our job to take sides.

Below is the new Times stylebook entry on "illegal immigrant," according to Corbett's email.

"illegal immigrant may be used to describe someone who enters, lives in or works in the United States without proper legal authorization. But be aware that in the debate over immigration, some people view it as loaded or offensive. Without taking sides or resorting to euphemism, consider alternatives when appropriate to explain the specific circumstances of the person in question, or to focus on actions: who crossed the border illegally; who overstayed a visa; who is not authorized to work in this country.

Unauthorized is also an acceptable description, though it has a bureaucratic tone. Undocumented is the term preferred by many immigrants and their advocates, but it has a flavor of euphemism and should be used with caution outside quotations. Illegal immigration, because it describes the issue rather than an individual, is less likely than illegal immigrant to be seen as troubling.

Take particular care in describing people whose immigration status is complex or subject to change – for example, young people brought to this country as children, many of whom are eligible for temporary reprieves from deportation under federal policies adopted in 2012.

Do not use illegal as a noun, and avoid the sinister-sounding alien."

CORRECTION: A prior version of this article described Mónica Novoa as the coordinator for the Drop the I-Word campaign. She is in fact the former coordinator of the Drop the I-Word campaign, and the current director of Define American.

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