Should Media Outlets Drop 'Illegal'? Ask Someone Without Papers

PHOTO: A March 14 rally in support of the New York State DREAM Act in Albany, NY.Ted Hesson/Long Island Wins
A March 14 rally in support of the New York State DREAM Act in Albany, NY.

intro: Should media outlets drop the term "illegal immigrant"?

After a speech by undocumented journalist Jose Antonio Vargas last week, media outlets like The New York Times and the Associated Press are being forced to consider that question.

Case in point: On Monday, the public editor at the Times decided to gather reader comments on the subject, amassing more than 280 replies, many of which called for the paper to continue describing people as "illegal."

But reading through the comments, one voice was largely missing: that of the people who will actually be described by the term.

Yesterday, ABC/Univision released an informal survey to ask undocumented immigrants which designation they believe media outlets should use. The question posed: "Which term do you prefer be used to describe immigration status: illegal immigrant, undocumented immigrant, or something else? Why?"

This wasn't a scientific study, but the response was tremendous. In less than 24 hours, 325 individuals replied via the survey form, and dozens more sent emails.

Of the 325 respondents -- who skewed young, Latino and Internet savvy -- 277 chose some variation of "undocumented."

Here are some of the people who responded, and why they want to end the era of "illegal:"

quicklist: 1 title: Stephanie Canelas, 21, lives in Houston, Texas, born in Honduras text: "The term 'illegal' is dehumanizing, and not a good representation of my status. I am lacking documents, that's the only thing that separates me from everyone else."

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quicklist: 2 title: Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, 26, lives in Tampa, Florida, born in Brazil text: "'Illegal' is a word that robs us from our humanity. This is a word that describes objects, and it should never be used to refer to human beings. I'm 'undocumented' because the only thing that I'm missing to fully participate in my community is a piece of paper. My family and I are humans, your neighbors, co-workers and community leaders."

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quicklist: 3 title: Hertz, 21, lives in Los Angeles, California, born in the Philippines text: "[Undocumented American is] the least demeaning and dehumanizing term for those of us with a lack of legal status. Once you call someone 'illegal' you take away their humanity, thinking of them not as an individual human being who endures very human problems but as a statistic, a demographic that people can easily scapegoat. Elie Wiesel said it best: 'No human being is illegal.'"

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quicklist: 4 title: Edilsa, 23, lives in Austin, Texas, born in Guatemala text: "Every time we have media to come to events held by our organization at University of Texas-Austin, they refer to us as 'illegal aliens' or 'illegals,' which I find very offensive. First, because we are human beings, students and families with dreams and aspirations. We do not want to be referred to as 'illegal alien' because we are human, not aliens. Also, many students came to the U.S. at a young age and did not decide to come here 'illegally.'

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quicklist: 5 title: Nadia, 24, lives in Davis, California, born in Mexico text: "I prefer the term [undocumented immigrant] because 'illegal' dehumanizes us and makes me feel inferior."

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quicklist: 6 title: Pamela Reséndiz, 23, lives in Austin, Texas, born in Mexico text: I would prefer undocumented immigrant. The reason would be because it re-emphasizes the point that we are all immigrants (from all parts of the world) and that just currently I am undocumented. Although, I would use 'undocumented American' when talking to media, technically it's inaccurate since…there are DREAMers who are not from the Americas.

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quicklist: 7 title: Jose Salcedo, 20, lives in Miami, Florida, born in Colombia text: "My being here in the country does not make me a criminal. If I was a criminal my crime would appear in the National Crime Report. I have not killed, raped, stolen, kidnapped or anything. Me or any other immigrant who hasn't committed a crime shouldn't be subjected to being linked with criminals or 'illegals.' We are immigrants, just like those before and the generations before them, but we just don't have the proper identification."

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quicklist: 8 title: Silvia, 28, lives in Washington, D.C., born in Mexico, formerly undocumented text: "No one can be illegal -- they are people. What people really are referring is to documentation status in terms of immigration process status. I also find it remarkably offensive when people use 'illegal' because more often than not, people are using it synonymously with Mexican immigrants."

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quicklist: 9 title: José Manuel Godínez-Samperio, 26, lives in Tampa, Florida, born in Mexico text: "I prefer undocumented because 'illegal' is dehumanizing. 'Illegal' justifies the oppression against immigrants. Undocumented is more neutral."

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quicklist: 10 title: Alicia, 21, lives in Miami, Florida, born in Peru text: "[Undocumented and DREAMer] because they do not make me feel like a criminal, but are exactly who I am."

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quicklist: 11 title: Evelyn Rivera, 24, lives in Altamonte Springs, Florida, born in Colombia text: "I prefer the term undocumented immigrant because no human is illegal. I may be currently undocumented but that does not make me any less of a person, sister or friend. I also prefer the term DREAMer but I recognize that not everyone is Dream Act eligible and my community as a whole deserves dignity and that can come from the words that are used to address us in the media."

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