The Cornell Daily Sun recently instituted a policy deciding to refrain from using the term “illegal immigrant” and, instead, use the term “undocumented immigrant” in their coverage. While The Sun is correct to use this more humane language, the editors must be careful not to allow their opinions to spill over into news articles.
As the editorial articulating this new policy notes, newspapers across the United States differ on this issue. Margaret Sullivan, the new Public Editor at the New York Times, defended the newspaper’s continued use of the term illegal immigrant as being the most neutral, correct and accurate term.
I, like the editorial board at The Sun, disagree. Margaret Sullivan goes on to say that, “the Times rightly forbids the term illegal alien...” However, if clarity and accuracy are the purported values to uphold, “illegal alien” is often the most accurate legal description. Given the sinister connotation of the term “illegal alien,” the New York Times is accepting that humanizing this diverse group of people is more important than using the most legally accurate terminology.
I commend The Sun for taking this one step further. My immigration law class had difficulty choosing a fair and neutral descriptor, and we somewhat unsatisfyingly settled on “undocumented noncitizen.” Indeed, neither “illegal immigrant,” “undocumented immigrant” nor “undocumented noncitizen” are sufficiently accurate descriptions of a broad group of people in violation of different civil and criminal laws, but as many of their difficulties are shared, a concise, if overbroad, description of these groups of people is understandably necessary for a newspaper to adopt.
The strongest argument for the use of the term “illegal immigrant” is that it is a clear and accurate term for the reader. I submit that both “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented immigrant” are equally clear. No one is confused by the meaning of either. The reader will instantly recognize that we are talking about foreign nationals who either overstayed their visa or crossed the border illegally to enter the United States. With this as the case, choosing the more humanizing option between two clear descriptors is an obvious decision. I commend The Sun for choosing the more humanizing description.
While The Sun is, in my opinion, correct to use the term “undocumented immigrant,” the editorial board should do so with the understanding that they are, in some way, taking a position on our contentious immigration debate. Words have meaning, and to choose “undocumented immigrant” instead of “illegal immigrant” is a choice to emphasize these people’s rights and dignity and to deemphasize the laws they have violated.
As such, the decision to use the term undocumented immigrant is not without legitimate criticism. It is, in part, a political decision. Indeed, the editorial board stated that they hope to encourage other news agencies to adopt “undocumented immigrant” for their coverage. While the role of an editorial is very much to express an opinion on current issues, The Sun should tread carefully in bringing political opinions into their news section. The Sun is correct to choose “undocumented” for their news articles going forward, but because the term is more humane and equally clear to the reader.
In some cases, including this one, a news organization is inevitably forced to adopt language that will not appeal to all groups. When our political debates involve disagreement over the very words we use to describe a person or viewpoint, editorial boards must decide on what they believe is a clear, accurate and neutral term for their coverage. I commend The Sun for their transparency on their decisionmaking process for this contentious topic. At the same time, I urge them to be aware of the risks of using their news articles to advance an agenda better left to the editorials.
Nicholas Kaasik is a second-year law student at Cornell Law School. He assigns and edits submissions for Barely Legal. He may be reached at email@example.com. The Public Editor column runs monthly on Mondays.