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SPEAK OUT: 'Undocumented' or 'Illegal'?

The phrase you choose can cast aspersions and draw allegiances at its mere utterance.

Amid the raging invective focused on the nation’s efforts to deal with unlawful immigration, a war of words wages in the undercurrent—a subtle struggle over the language used to define the discussion.

Are the millions of people in the United States who are not here lawfully “illegal” or are they “undocumented”?

The question is not mere semantics, activists and experts say: Choosing one over the other exposes allegiances and stokes the embers of animosity.

Take for example the ballots that await Maryland voters in this November’s election. Question 4—the referendum on Maryland’s version of the “Dream Act”—will ask whether the state should allow “undocumented immigrants” to be eligible for in-state tuition.

Immigrant advocates tend to abhor “illegal” as a racially charged epithet that dehumanizes the people it's applied to.

Their opponents deride “undocumented” as politically correct pandering, and most of the nation’s media outlets dismiss it as a euphemism that portrays a person’s lack of legal status as a mere afterthought, as if to diminish the severity of having sneaked across the border or overstayed a visa.

In newspeak, “illegal immigrant” is ostensibly the norm, per decree of the Associated Press Stylebook, the standard-bearer for newspaper reporters and editors.

Last year’s update to the AP Stylebook retained “illegal immigrant” despite continued pleas from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and other groups, reported Poynter.org

AP’s reasoning?

“Undocumented suggests that the issue is more about paperwork than one’s legal right to be in a country,” AP’s David Minthorn told Poynter.

Immigrant activists are pushing back with the national Drop the I-Word campaign, which pressures media outlets to stop using the purportedly pejorative terms.

The U.S. Supreme Court rekindled the debate this summer by dodging it altogether: “Undocumented” and “illegal” were both conspicuously missing from the court’s June 25 ruling to uphold the core of Arizona’s controversial immigration law. The justices opted instead for “unlawful” and “unauthorized” as modifiers of the legalistic descriptor “alien.”

The court’s linguistic leapfrogging set off a polemical uproar as pundits pushed the primacy of one term over the other. A pair of op-eds on CNN.com neatly encapsulated the debate.

In the first, Charles Garcia saw the Supreme Court’s omission of “illegal” as the onset of a “humanistic approach” to eventual immigration reform and bluntly declared “illegal” to be nothing short of a racial slur.

“If you don't pay your taxes, are you an illegal? What if you get a speeding ticket? A murder conviction? No. You're still not an illegal. Even alleged terrorists and child molesters aren't labeled illegals,” Garcia wrote.

The rebuttal by Ruben Navarrette argued that “undocumented” is both inaccurate and absurd, while “illegal immigrant” is the more factual.

“The phrase is accurate. It's the shoe that fits. It's reality. And, as is often the case with reality, it's hard for some people to accept,” Navarrette wrote.

jag August 30, 2012 at 05:07 PM
"Should we just call them future democrat-voters?" That, obviously, is up to the Republican party. There are plenty of Rs who are pro-immigration reform (including Condi in her speech last night and Jeb (not to mention the rest of the Bush's) as well). Then again, there are plenty of Rs who are complete racists and look at Hispanics as dirt, too.
Help Save Maryland.org August 30, 2012 at 05:10 PM
Undocumented Democrats!
Juan-Manuel Carrillo August 30, 2012 at 05:14 PM
I do not like the term ALIEN regardless of who has used it in the past. I was never an alien to this society or this country, so I found the term to be innacurate and pejorative when assigned to me back in 1989. I believe I integrated to this society and this country from day one when my family decided to move here. I prefer to use the term "undocumented" as “illegal” bothers many people and activist groups. I use the same courtesy I would use if someone said "call me Pete, not Peter" though I think neither ILLEGAL nor UNDOCUMENTED accurately reflect all immigration situations people face. I don’t understand why people have such reactions to this common decency. It should not be a controversial item. As a little background for anyone still reading this, I was technically “illegal” for 3 months in 1990 due to a mistake done by INS that almost cost me a college scholarship (and therefore, my college education). That eventually got resolved and I contribute to this society in many different ways. I was lucky to be part of an educated middle class family that could afford an attorney when things went sour. I know many other people get unfairly turned down everyday for legal residence and many have no means or knowledge to reverse the issue. Perhaps I am biased for wanting those people to have the same opportunities I have in this country. I am not afraid they will take “our jobs” like other posters here.
Help Save Maryland.org August 30, 2012 at 05:17 PM
I like to think that it will be up to law enforcement. With a new Administration many of these problems will simply head south of the border. No need to compromise our principles when dealing with lawbreakers. Attrition thru enforcement. Those that refuse to leave on their own, when detained by law enforcement at some point, will be banned from permanent residency. Excellent motivation for illegal aliens to leave and sign up for work visas from their homelands.
Fran Williams September 19, 2012 at 05:45 PM
In the 1990's, the mexican government changed their law to permit recongnition of dual citizenship, American and mexican. The mexicans that invade the U.S. illegally have no loyality here. They come here to take, not to contribute. There are billions of 'undocumented' wages paid under the table. There are billions of 'undocumented' money sent to mexico, some of which is hand carried over the border. I personally know of one person who continues to scam the SSI disability, while working under the table. She refused to go back to her regular job because she owed taxes and the IRS would not persue disability SSI payments. She use to run a bar that accepted cash only. She never reported all the money she brought in and drove 3 million in cash into mexico. She is now working in mexico at a resort and still collecting disability while she continues her fraud. The whole family is involved in fraudulant activities. I tried to report her sister to EDD for committing fraud in order to steal unemployment payments belonging to someone else. The person I spoke with at EDD (hispanic accent) said they will NOT pursue the matter because she was hispanic. So I have become jaded because of all the fraud and criminal activities I personally have witnessed and tried to report. Our government is allowing an entire culture of people to ravish our country at tax payer expense. You have no idea how sickened I am from all that I've seen.

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