SPJ Takes Up Crusade against Term 'Illegal Immigrant'

The Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ)'s Diversity Committee has announced that it will be launching a year-long campaign to educate journalists about the hurtfulness of phrases like “illegal immigrant,” which is the term currently preferred by the influential AP Stylebook.

The label “remains offensive to Latinos, and especially Mexicans, and to the fundamentals of American jurisprudence,” wrote Leo E. Laurence, a member of the SPJ Diversity Committee and the editor the San Diego News Service (which appears to be this blog that was last updated in August, 2009.

Seeing as most Latinos in the U.S. are not illegal immigrants – and since the term has no racial or ethnic connotation – it's hard to see how it would cause offense to this group. In fact, the only people who should really be put off by the term are illegal immigrants themselves (or their advocates), who don't believe unlawful residency in the U.S. should be a crime.

Laurence argues that the terms “undocumented immigrant” or “undocumented worker” should replace “illegal immigrant,” because the U.S. legal system presumes that one is innocent until proven guilty.

“One of the most basic of our constitutional rights is that everyone (including non-citizens) is innocent of any crime until proven guilty in a court of law,” wrote Laurence, whose bio notes that he holds a law degree. “Simply put, only a judge, not a journalist, can say that someone is an illegal.”

Obviously you don't need to go to law school to understand that basic concept. And it's certainly important to use words like “suspected” when writing about a specific individual whose immigration status has not yet been determined. But it has absolutely nothing to do with getting rid of the term “illegal immigrant” altogether.

Drunk drivers are also innocent until convicted in a court of law – and yet the Miami Herald headline “Miami police cracking down on drunk drivers” hasn't warranted a similar critique from SPJ's civil libertarian crusaders. Car theft, too, is considered a crime that must be adjudicated through the legal system. But when the AP reports that “Newport News police want to reduce car thefts,” does the SPJ consider this a violation of the constitutional rights of the car thief community.

There is simply no difference between those headlines and ones like, “Miami police cracking down on illegal immigrants,” or “Newport News police want to reduce illegal immigration.” These reports are referencing a general group, not accusing individual people of crimes. They certainly don't clash with the presumption of innocence before the law.

The SPJ diversity committee says “undocumented immigrant” is a more appropriate description. Yet living in the U.S. without any documentation of citizenship is illegal. Using the term “undocumented immigrant” is disingenuous, because it downplays the severity of the crime. It's like calling a car thief an “unauthorized driver” – it's misleading to the point of inaccuracy. And when a journalist makes the decision to mislead readers, in an attempt to portray a person or group in a more positive light, it can't be called anything but pure advocacy. It's a shame that an important group like SPJ is promoting such tactics.

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