The following article is an opinion piece and does not reflect the views of SPJ, its membership or its Diversity Committee. The committee itself has taken no stand on the use of the phrase “illegal immigrant.”
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.
SPJ’s Diversity Committee met during the 2010 convention in Las Vegas and decided to engage in a yearlong educational campaign designed to inform and sensitize journalists as to the best language to use when writing and reporting on people of different cultures and backgrounds.
Some believe the phrase illegal alien originated with fiery, anti-immigrant groups along the U.S.-Mexico border, such as the Minutemen. Gradually, the phrase — along with illegal immigrant — seeped into common usage. It is now even used by some network TV newscasters.
Yet it remains offensive to many Latinos, and especially Mexicans, and to the fundamentals of American jurisprudence.
However, there are some national publications, including The Nation, that regularly use the preferred phrase: undocumented immigrant.
“Immigrants always have been the canaries in the mine shaft — an early-warning system about the health of the U.S. economy,” columnist-author Linda Chavez wrote.
After my post on this issue on the Diversity Committee blog, Miryam Wiley, a 20-year SPJ member, wrote to me:
“As a journalist who has written for more than a decade about undocumented immigrants, I applaud you for your suggestion (about) ’suspected’ illegal immigrants. … I have encountered resistance from my editors when I used the word ’undocumented’ to refer to immigrants. I have seen my text changed, under my byline, to conform to the AP style. I found that disturbing but did not have a say in the mat-ter. I often remind people that the word ’undocumented’ is a better choice. This week, a lawyer thanked me for making that choice.”
The AP Stylebook unfortunately says that “illegal immigrant” is preferred over “undocumented worker.”
“The National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) is concerned with the increasing use of pejorative terms to describe the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the United States,” NAHJ says.
It is calling for a national discussion and re-evaluation of the use of the phrase illegal immigrant. “The term criminalizes a person,” the organization of Latino journalists contends.
NAHJ recommends: “Instead, use ’undocumented immigrant’ or ’undocumented worker’” and to “Avoid using ’illegal(s)’ as a noun.”
One of the most basic of our constitutional rights is that everyone (including non-citizens) is innocent of any crime until proven guilty in a court of law. That’s guaranteed under the Fifth, Sixth and 14th Amendments of the Constitution, as I learned during four-year post-doctoral studies in appellate law at the California Court of Appeal in San Diego.
The presumption of innocence is an ancient tenet of criminal law. That legal doctrine is basic to our common-law system of jurisprudence. It has also been adapted by many countries following the Na-poleonic, civil-law legal system including Italy, Spain, Brasil, Poland, the Philippines, Russia and the United Nations. It’s often expressed by the phrase “innocent until proven guilty,” credited to English lawyer Sir William Garrow (1760-1840).
Simply put, only a judge, not a journalist, can say that someone is an illegal.
At the national convention in Las Vegas, the Diversity Committee took up the idea of a formal resolution I had submitted at the request of several members of CCNMA: Latino Journalists of California, of which I’m also a member.
It was based on our federal, constitutional principle that everyone is considered innocent of any crime until proven guilty in a court of law. The proposed Diversity Committee resolution urged journalists to use the phrase “undocumented immigrant(s), and avoid both “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien.”
That “sparked an engaging discussion,” according to committee chairman George Daniels. One of two action steps the committee identified is for SPJ “to engage in a yearlong education campaign designed to inform and sensitize journalists to the best language when writing and reporting on persons from different cultures and backgrounds,” Daniels wrote in an e-mail.
This “would aid SPJ membership in understanding the importance of our current, national discussion of immigration,” he added. “This is not about being politically correct,” he stressed.
“We, in SPJ, want to make the argument that being sensitive to those we cover is just the ethical thing to do since we as SPJ members aim to ‘minimize harm’ when we report,” he added.
My hope is that through this process, SPJ delegates will consider a full resolution at the 2011 convention.
Leo E. Laurence, J.D., is editor of the San Diego News Service and a longtime member of the SPJ Diversity Committee. He holds a law degree, is a Master Mason from a lodge in New York and is a member of CCNMA: Latino Journalists of California. Contact him at (619) 757-4909 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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