Is 'illegal immigrant' a slur now?

Published: Friday, July 6 2012 3:07 p.m. MDT

Supporters of immigration in front of the federal building that houses some offices of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in New York, Monday, June 25, 2012.

Seth Wenig, Associated Press

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The Supreme Court's decision to omit the phrase "illegal immigrant" from the Arizona immigration ruling last week has sparked a discussion online about the proper way to identify someone who is living in the country without authorization.

In an editorial for CNN, Charles Garcia, who has served in the administrations of four presidents, applauded the court for establishing a "humanistic approach to our current restructuring of immigration policy." He called the term "illegal immigrant" a "slur" and argued labeling a person as such insinuates the person — and not the actions the person has taken — is unlawful.

"In this country, there is still a presumption of innocence that requires a jury to convict someone of a crime," he wrote. "If you don't pay your taxes, are you an illegal? What if you get a speeding ticket? A murder conviction? No. You're still not an illegal. Even alleged terrorists and child molesters aren't labeled illegals."

Garcia called on the press to follow in the Supreme Court's footsteps. Official Associate Press Style, which most media organizations adhere to, advises journalists to use the term "illegal immigrant." In a recent study of 122,000 news stories published between 2000 and 2010, University of Memphis researchers found 89 percent used the terms "illegal immigrant" or "illegal alien."

By repeatedly using the term, Garcia argued journalists are giving society an "overdose" of "worn-out prefabricated phrases that convert people into lifeless dummies, who become easy prey for the political class."

"The poison is effective," he wrote. "Surely it's no coincidence that in 2010, hate crimes against Latinos made up 66 percent of the violence based on ethnicity, up from 45 percent in 2009."

After updating the definition in the AP Stylebook last year, David Minthorn, AP's deputy standards editor, told Poynter the organization chose to stick with the term "illegal immigrant" because it was neutral and accurate.

The word "undocumented," he said, "suggests that the issue is more about paperwork than one's legal right to be in a country."

“We feel that the term is sometimes used to indicate that it’s not really a legal violation,” he said. “We’re trying to be neutral, and if we adopt that term in every case it would be imprecise. So, we just prefer not to use it at all.”

In a contrasting editorial for CNN, Latino journalist Ruben Navarrette agreed. The term "undocumented immigrant" is politically correct, he wrote, but "absurd."

"Most of these people have plenty of documents," he wrote. "A woman who makes a living cleaning homes in my neighborhood once explained to me that she had a drawer full of fake green cards and IDs saying she was — pick one — a native-born U.S. citizen, legal resident or exchange student."

Those who struggle with the phrase "illegal immigrant," Navarrette argued, are "really troubled by something deeper."

"At the end of the day, by supporting a pathway to earned legal status, they're defending a group of people who engaged in unlawful activity," he wrote. "For some folks, this is messy business. So they try to sanitize it by changing the language."

Among Latino voters, about a third side with Navarrette. According to a Fox News Latino poll published in March, 35 percent said they think the term "illegal immigrant" is accurate. Forty-six percent said they find the term offensive.

This is not the first time the Supreme Court has used the term "undocumented immigrant." Justice Sonia Sotomayor first used the term in 2009 in the case Mohawk Industries v. Carpenter and again in 2010 when orally reviewing an Arizona law penalizing businesses that hire illegal immigrants. When writing the majority opinion on that case, Chief Justice John Roberts traded the phrase "illegal immigrant" for "unauthorized aliens."

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