Is Using the Term 'Illegal' A Generational Thing?

The nation's oldest college daily, The Yale Daily News, which has had dozens of its alums join institutions like the New York Times and the Associated Press, recently decided to ban the phrase from its pages. (Full disclosure: I contributed to the paper as a columnist during my college years.)

"The conclusion we arrived at is that the term 'illegal immigrant' should be avoided because the word 'illegal' modifies the person, i.e. the immigrant, rather than what is actually illegal, which is his or her action," Alon Harish, the former managing editor of the Yale Daily News, wrote in an email.

The editors-in-chief at the University of Kansas and Tufts University dailies said their papers haven't yet developed codified style on the issue, but that most of their writers tend to naturally avoid "illegal immigrant" when describing fellow students.

"Our writers and copy editors usually defer to AP style, which has been 'illegal immigrant.' But many of us have come to see that language as unsatisfactory and prefer variations on 'undocumented student'," Ian Cummings, the editor-in-chief of the University Daily Kansan wrote in an email. He also noted that it is likely an explicit rule to avoid "illegal immigrant" will develop in the coming year. Rebecca Santiago, the editor-in-chief at the The Tufts Daily wrote in email, "we feel that 'illegal immigrants' fails to clarify that the immigration status of the people in question is illegal rather than the people themselves."

Unlike the others papers that responded, the University of North Carolina's Daily Tar Heel still uses the term. Their editor-in-chief, Andy Thomasan said they do so because they subscribe to the AP style guide and no one has ever expressed to them a discontent with the language.

"There hasn't been any pressure for us to even re-examine our style," Thomasan wrote. Notably, only 2 percent of UNC's most recently admitted class is Hispanic. Nearly half of Hispanic voters said they find the term offensive in a poll conducted by Fox News Latino this year.

Ryan Rainey, the editor in chief of The Badger Herald at the University of Wisconsin, says its only a matter of time until all outlets realize the terms are outdated. ABC, NBC, CNN, and The Huffington Post, among others, have dropped the phrases in recent years. At the very least, ABC/Univision's informal poll of college papers suggests that tomorrow's newsrooms may move away from the divisive term with input from a younger and more diverse generation of journalists.

"There are terms for a lot of different groups within society that have phased out over the last several decades and I don't think this is any different," Rainey said.

Although Rainey grew up in a small town in Illinois where "illegal" was commonly used, he said that he's since learned how damaging the term can be to the immigration debate.

"It's counterproductive if you believe in a public service model of journalism," he said. "It alienates readers, it alienates sources, it alienates a pretty wide swath of people. So why would you use it?"


Update: Since publishing, The Cornell Sun, which is also on the Princeton Review's list of top college papers, has released a statement taking a strong line against the term "illegal immigrant." The article was updated to reflect this statement.

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