News organizations are debating what to call those who are in the U.S. illegally, but for voters the answer is in: They are “illegal immigrants.”
A poll by MWR Strategies, a Republican polling firm, found 62 percent said those in the country without proper authorization are properly called “illegal immigrants.” Just 25 percent of respondents said they were “undocumented workers.”
Those two terms, or variations of them, are doing battle in newsrooms and on Capitol Hill, where immigrant rights advocates say calling someone an illegal immigrant is demeaning, and those on the other side say calling them unauthorized workers is a nonsensical euphemism.
Michael McKenna, who conducted the survey, said the findings suggest that Americans are resistant to political correctness.
“They’ve been trying to sell this ‘undocumented workers’ for like 15 years now, and nobody’s buying it,” he said.
Mr. McKenna polled a similar question in 2004 and 2006, and the results were largely the same. In 2004, the split was 73 percent who favored “illegal aliens,” while 25 percent saw them as “undocumented workers.” In 2006, the split was 62-30.
The pollster said that shows a remarkable consistency — though he said it doesn’t mean people are opposed to legalizing illegal immigrants. Indeed, another question in his poll found voters said it is time to pass immigration reform.
Terminology matters immensely in the immigration debate.
Opponents were able to dent legislation in the past by labeling it as an amnesty for illegal immigrants.
This time, the senators who wrote the bill have worked hard to argue that their legislation includes so many hurdles that it is not an amnesty.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who helped write the bill, has been making that case to conservative talk shows across the country. His office released a fact-check last week explaining why they didn’t consider the bill an amnesty: “Illegal immigrants who qualify for temporary legal status must pay stiff fines, undergo background checks and pay taxes. After 10 years and if all the border security and enforcement triggers are met, then they go to the back of the line for a green card.”
The bill’s backers appear to be winning the argument. Of the 800 voters he surveyed, Mr. McKenna found 32 percent thought the Senate bill is an “amnesty,” while 38 percent said it was “immigration reform.” The rest didn’t have an opinion or refused to answer.
What has really inflamed passions is the debate over “illegal” versus “undocumented.”
The Associated Press this year changed its style to prohibit use of the term “illegal immigrant” and said people should not be described as “illegal.” The AP did not offer a substitute term, saying instead that writers instead should try to describe someone’s actions rather than label the person.
The New York Times this week changed its guidelines, though it didn’t ban the use of “illegal immigrant.”