Thursday, December 30, 2010

Undocumented workers, illegal immigrants and AP style

Leave it to Fox News to make an opinion I hold seem utterly distasteful to me:
Plenty of conservatives are pretty upset over a campaign by the Society of Professional Journalists to convince reporters to stop using the terms "illegal aliens" and "illegal immigrants" in favor of "undocumented immigrant." But none are as livid as perpetually outraged Fox News host Megyn Kelly, who on Wednesday afternoon asked if journalists were going to start calling rapists "non-consensual sex partners" next.
"You could say that a burglar is an unauthorized visitor. You know, you could say that a rapist is a non-consensual sex partner which, obviously, would be considered offensive to the victims of those crimes," Kelly said. "So how far could you take this?"
As it happens, I discussed this issue back in July in response to a post at the Feministing blog. What I said then bears repeating now:
I get it: There's a desire to use language to create dignity for people by separating humanity's inherent characteristics from the conditions that afflict them and the actions they take. So there's no more "disabled person." It's now "person with disabilities." The emphasis is on personhood. And that's nice. Laudable. But it does clutter the language: Two words become three. (Similarly, I know from painful experience that there's any number of neutered-but-nice terms for "homeless people.") Pile up enough similar examples, and over time, the cluttering of language tends to obscure more than it reveals. 
Which is the case with Feministing's snit: "Undocumented" reduces the issues at play to nothing more than a paperwork problem. (And it's not necessarily more accurate as shorthand; surely many if not most of these folks have, say, birth certificates or driver's licenses or whatnot in their home countries. What kind of documentation are we talking about?) "Illegal" more immediately conveys the sum and substance of the controversy -- and references to illegal immigration are almost always a reference to the controversy -- many people (and their American employers) have chosen to break the laws of this country by crossing the borders to work here. I think those laws should change; I don't think playing games with the language is the way to do it.
As I suggested, any kind of shorthand -- whether it's "undocumented immigrant" or "illegal immigrant" -- is always going to be overly reductive and, in the end, at leastsomewhat imprecise. Some shorthand phrases, though, are more imprecise and convey less information than others. And those phrases should generally be avoided.

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