Friday, September 30, 2011

SPJ and 'illegal immigrants'

I'm uncomfortable with this:
The Society of Professional Journalists, hearing an emotional plea from Rebecca Aguilar, a member of SPJ and of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, voted Tuesday to recommend that newsrooms discontinue using the terms "illegal alien" and "illegal immigrant." The resolution from the 7,800-member organization says only courts can decide when a person has committed an illegal act. 
Aguilar argued that using those words insulted Latinos and all those who are or had once been in the United States illegally. She used the example of her mother, who became a "proud American" in 1980. Her mother felt insulted "every time she heard that word," Aguilar said of the phrase "illegal alien."
The appropriate term? "Undocumented people." Ugh.

The problem here, as I've written before, is that the 11 million "undocumented" people in the United States are here ... illegally. Have they legally been ajudicated as such? No, the vast majority of them. And it's why my practice, when referring to a specific person or small set of persons, would be to attribute descriptions. "John Doe, whom authorities say entered the United States illegally..." or "John Doe, who says he crossed the border, etc. etc." Let your sources do the work of framing.

But I'm fine using the term "illegal immigrants" or "illegal immigration" to describe the issues surrounding the 11 million people who are in the United States in violation of the laws of this country. That's what the controversy is about. Using the term "undocumented" doesn't convey that—it reduces the issue to one of paperwork. (And as long as we're being pedantic, it may not be strictly true: Surely many if not most of these folks have, say, birth certificates or driver's licenses or whatnot in their home countries.)

I think "undocumented immigrant" obscures more than "illegal immigrant" reveals, if only slightly. I'm sorry that that hurts some people's feelings. If it were up to me, our immigration policy wouldn't criminalize most people who want to come to the United States. But the law is the law, and the journalist's job is to convey information as clearly as she can. The SPJ folks suggest they're striking a blow for clarity and accuracy by putting the kibosh on this term. I don't think they're right.


Chris Rywalt said...

Joel, I think you're right about letting the sources do the framing: That's what journalists should do. Whether you call someone an "undocumented" immigrant or an "illegal" immigrant, that's the writer making a judgment call they should not, perhaps, be making.

Calling someone an "undocumented immigrant", however, doesn't obscure anything. They may be documented in their own country, but in this case the word "undocumented" modifies "immigrant", and that's surely what they are. "Undocumented people" is absurd, however.

Given that journalists very carefully use word choices like "alleged murderer", calling anyone an illegal immigrant is a problem -- the journalist has convicted the subject already. Might as well start referring to everyone by whatever crime they're charged with and skip the trial. Calling them "alleged illegal immigrant" or "self-described illegal immigrant" is getting ungainly.

I think this is a fine compromise (although, specifically, "undocumented person" is terrible).

BMG said...

Looking at the tables on this page, one could reasonably say that paperwork is precisely the problem.

(This is November 2011's bulletin.)