Media Debate: Illegal or “Undocumented” Immigrants?

Published on December 17th, 2012

By Joe Guzzardi
October 11, 2012

Fifteen years ago, I embarked on an independent, personal mission to lift mainstream media immigration reporting up to the standards journalists set for themselves. By 1995, I had been a professional journalist for more than a decade. Immigration reporters’ utter failure to adhere to their own guidelines appalled me.

Numerous watchdog organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists, the Committee for Concerned Journalists, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the International Ombudsman Organization are dedicated to reporting fairness—or so their websites claim.

Yet when dealing with immigration’s most fundamental point, how to accurately describe a foreign-born individuals status, reporters and their editors either can’t or won’t get it right. An individual living in the United States illegally is not “undocumented,” “an immigrant without legal status,” “unauthorized” or even, as one unusually brazen reporter wrote “a future citizen.”

According to the U.S. Code, Section 1325 “alien” is the correct word to describe any person “who enters or attempts to enter the United States at any time or place other than as designated by immigration officers, or eludes examination or inspection by immigration officers or attempts to enter or obtains entry to the United States by a willfully false or misleading representation.” Federal government language is crystal clear. Apparently, however, “alien” offended reporters and editors who eventually took it upon themselves to create a more politically correct word: “undocumented.” Reporters offered unconvincing reasons for their duplicity. The most commonly heard are that aliens and their advocates object to being called aliens!

My campaign involved emailing and calling the offending reporters and editors. I offered a compromise solution: if reporters don’t want to write “alien,” they should at least substitute “illegal immigrant.” I’d point out that for journalists to repeatedly refer to aliens as “undocumented” or worse simply as “immigrants” undermines their credibility. If a reporter can’t correctly indentify his subject and if the editor condones the use of incorrect and purposely misleading language, then why should a reader have confidence in other stories and editorials that the newspaper publishes? The SPJ, a 100-year old organization with more than 10,000 members urges reporters to “admit mistakes and correct them promptly.” Even though arbitrarily substituting “undocumented” for alien is wrong, I had little success in budging reporters, their editors or their ombudsmen.

Then, seemingly out of the blue, those of us who strive for journalism accuracy scored an important victory. The New York Times, a chronic offender, recently hired Margaret Sullivan as its new public editor. Judging from the columns and blogs she’s written in over past weeks, the debate over alien versus undocumented has been raging at the Times for months, if not longer.

Ms. Sullivan deserves tremendous credit. As she mulled over the pros and cons, Ms. Sullivan interviewed immigration advocates and critics. In the end, Ms. Sullivan came down in favor of “illegal immigrant,” a phrase she feels is “clear and accurate” and “easily understood.” Unlike many of her peers who ignore their own standards, Ms. Sullivan made her decision based in large part on the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage which specifically states: “illegal immigrant is the preferred term—Do not use the euphemism undocumented.”

While the Times is only one newspaper, its global prominence and heavily trafficked website make it the most influential regarding immigration. Ms. Sullivan points out that her office doesn’t make policy. Nevertheless, Ms. Sullivan’s decision to endorse “illegal immigrant” over “undocumented immigrant” is a major triumph and offers hope that responsible reporters might follow her example.


Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow whose columns have been syndicated since 1986. Contact him at [email protected]

You are donating to :

How much would you like to donate?
$10 $20 $30
Would you like to make regular donations? I would like to make donation(s)
How many times would you like this to recur? (including this payment) *
Name *
Last Name *
Email *
Additional Note