No human being is illegal.
In late September, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas initiated a campaign to change the national conversation on immigration by urging media agencies to drop the term “illegal immigrant.”
As news outlets weigh Vargas’ challenge, The Sun is instating a policy against the dehumanizing and incorrect term. The Sun has not typically used the term, and moving forward will instead use the more accurate descriptor “undocumented.”
While this may sound like semantics to some, the term ascribes an identity. The continued use of the term “illegal immigrant” disparages the already-marginalized immigrant community. The first person to coin the phrase may have done so out of convenience, naivety or xenophobia, but anti-immigration advocates have gleefully championed the term, along with its more sinister sister: “illegal alien.” These terms convey criminality and hope to raise the hackles of “legal” Americans.
Aside from the pejorative nature of the term, “illegal immigrant” is incorrect. Many undocumented workers and students have not even committed a crime. According the Pew Hispanic Center, almost half of all undocumented immigrants entered the country legally but stayed after their visas expired — a civil, not criminal infraction. More importantly, it is the action of entering the United States without permission that is illegal, not the immigrant him or herself. Even when people commit clear-cut crimes, his or her identity is not characterized as “illegal.”
The United States is a country of immigrants. Our borders have opened and closed for prospective citizens, but the legality of immigration has changed arbitrarily.
The language we choose inevitably has political implications. The term “illegal immigrant” inherently passes legal judgement on a large and diverse group of Americans with varying circumstances. In our efforts to maintain the journalistic principles of accuracy and neutrality, we condemn the indiscriminate deeming of people as “illegal.”
News organizations both reflect and influence national attitudes. Today, The Sun is standing in solidarity with Jose Antonio Vargas, The Miami Herald, San Antonio Express-News, The Huffington Post and other media agencies that have dropped the term “illegal immigrant.” The Sun supports the fair treatment of the undocumented community in its coverage. We urge the Associated Press and The New York Times to alter their policies on the term and ask our readers to be careful of their language as well. When society denies respect to one community, we are all at risk.