Phil Corbett, associate managing editor for standards, explained via email why the Times uses “illegal immigrant,” and some of the challenges the term raises.
Obviously we know this is a sensitive area, one that we continue to struggle with. As my colleague Julia Preston, who covers immigration, has suggested, we’re trying hard to be neutral on an issue where there isn’t much neutral ground.
For one thing, we don’t reduce our coverage of this complicated issue to a single label. Julia and other Times reporters try to be detailed, descriptive and as accurate as possible in writing about immigrants in a whole range of different situations.
But in referring in general terms to the issue of people living in the United States without legal papers, we do think the phrases ”illegal immigrants” and “illegal immigration” are accurate, factual and as neutral as we can manage under the circumstances. It is, in fact, illegal to enter, live or work in this country without valid documents. Some people worry that we are labeling immigrants as “criminals” — but we’re not. ”Illegal” is not a synonym for “criminal.” (One can even park “illegally,” though it’s not a criminal offense.)
Proposed alternatives like ”undocumented” seem really to be euphemisms – as though this were just a bureaucratic mix-up that can easily be remedied. Often those phrases seem deliberately chosen to try to soften or minimize the significance of the lack of legal status. We avoid those euphemisms just as we avoid phrases that tend to cast a more pejorative light on immigrants. For example, we steer clear of the shorthand “illegals” and also the word “aliens,” both of which we think have needlessly negative connotations.
Just putting this out there.
yeah, so how many times have i heard rabid nativists saying “it is, in fact, illegal to cross the border without papers!” —you don’t call a person who kills somebody a “criminal” until he has been proven guilty in a court of law—if it is, in fact, illegal to cross the border without papers—why aren’t they waiting until people have been pronounced guilty in a court of law?
this whole argument just doesn’t make any sense at all, and is too heavily informed by nativist arguing. you don’t get to compromise with white supremacists on what you call people they are terrorizing and call that an ethical standard.
Also, “illegal immigrants” ascribes an awful lot of agency to undocumented people who were brought to the U.S. as children.