Are “illegal aliens” simply misunderstood “undocumented immigrants?” The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Diversity Committee believes so, and it’s engaged in a campaign to “inform and sensitize journalists as to the best language to use when writing and reporting” on the issue. That may sound nice, but there is nothing insensitive about calling a crime a crime.
Leo E. Laurence of the SPJ diversity committee contends that, “Frequent use of the phrases ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘illegal alien’ by our mainstream media is being questioned in order to remain faithful to the principles of our U.S. Constitution.” The issue, however, is more political than constitutional. SPJ asserts that because under the Constitution someone is innocent until proven guilty, the use of the word “illegal” is prejudicial. “Simply put,” writes Mr. Laurence, “only a judge, not a journalist, can say that someone is an illegal.”
Mr. Laurence is confusing several points. First, there is a difference between the use of the word “illegal” as applied to an individual and as applied to the general issue of illegal immigration. A person arrested for stealing may be referred to as an alleged thief, but those who are collectively committing burglaries are rightly referred to as thieves. As well the Constitution applies to the behavior of government, not individuals. Journalists don’t face the same constitutional restrictions as the government and don’t have to observe the same formalities. If the logic of fealty to constitutional restrictions were applied generally to the journalistic profession, it would mean the end of reporting as we know it.
The expression “illegal alien” became common parlance in the 1970s. At the time, it was the successor to descriptive terms such as “undesirable alien” that were popularized in the 1920s. The legal definition of “alien” is “any person not a citizen or national of the United States;” that shouldn’t be controversial, unless someone is afraid foreigners are being unfairly confused with Martians. The word “illegal” accurately describes the issue at the center of the controversy. A legal alien or immigrant is someone who has gone through the legal process for entry to the United States; an illegal alien or immigrant is someone who has not. This definition is enshrined in law -for example the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996” - and in terminology used by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Mr. Laurence maintains that the “preferred phrase” is “undocumented immigrant.” But preferred by whom? Certainly, wiggle words are preferred by activist groups, such as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, which opposes the use of the term “illegal immigrant.” In such matters, though, it doesn’t make sense to take guidance from activists because they have a conflict of interest, particularly those who are most vigorous in defending those involved in the illicit activity in question. Everyone who commits a crime would prefer to have it rebranded in a way that takes the emphasis off the illicit or immoral natures of their actions.
The term “illegal alien” is highly specific and accurately describes the problem, unlike “undocumented immigrant,” which purposefully removes a stigma that should rightly remain.