Friday, March 31, 2006

Illegal _____ ?

The give and take is on, of course, about language used to cover the immigration debate.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists wants to ditch illegal aliens or illegal immigrants in favor of undocumented worker or undocumented immigrant.

Kathleen Parker, on the other hand, cites her Hispanic ties and says that's all a bunch of hooey.

The issue is exacerbated by our refusal to speak plain, non-PC English about what's what. Illegal immigrants are not "undocumented workers." They're illegal. And, if we're to use the legal language accurately, they're "aliens."

Then again, when we talk about illegal aliens, it is useful to remind ourselves that we're also talking about human beings. To see television images of shadows crossing the desert into the U.S. is to see criminals intent on misdeeds rather than poor people, hundreds of whom die each year in the process, trying to find jobs and plenty to eat.

The NAHJ advice about not using "aliens" is solid -- yes, that might be the legal definition, but it has so much sci-fi and political baggage (sometimes the same thing), that avoiding it is best. And illegals alone as a shorthand has a crassness to be avoided.

But the middle-ground most news outlets have staked out, illegal immigrants, is also not right, the NAHJ says, because the illegal is out of place:
Under current U.S. immigration law, being an undocumented immigrant is not a crime, it is a civil violation. Furthermore, an estimated 40 percent of all undocumented people living in the U.S. are visa overstayers, meaning they did not illegally cross the U.S. border.
But we report all the time about companies that pay "civil penalties" of millions of dollars without admitting or denying wrongdoing. Perhaps it's wrong, but the message between the lines seems not to escape most people in those cases -- someone did something wrong.

So undocumented has its problems, too, because it means the person does not have the correct legal documents. In other words, it also gets to the rightness and wrongness of things, and it's wrong not to have those documents. (As some commentators have pointed out -- most people have documents, but in this case not the right ones. So perhaps improperly documented? Kind of sounds like a dog without proper papers, though.)

I haven't seen any great rush to adopt the "undocumented" form. I suspect most news organizations will stick with "illegal immigrants."


At 4/1/06, 11:54 AM, Blogger brother said...

Legal immigrants enter by permission. Those who enter without permission are invaders, not non-criminals! If they are otherwise law-abiding, then by all means put them on the waiting list and send them home until their names come up. Them they can have a visa of some kind!

That's only common sense!

At 4/1/06, 2:48 PM, Blogger Doug said...

While I very much appreciate comments, I have a guide here -- they must pertain to the subject at hand, which is language, editorial decisions on such, etc. An earlier comment about Bush and the Epstein-Barr virus, while it may well be a legitimate topic, does not fit here and so has been removed.


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