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SPEAK OUT: 'Undocumented' or 'Illegal'?

The phrase you choose can cast aspersions and draw allegiances at its mere utterance.

Amid the raging invective focused on the nation’s efforts to deal with unlawful immigration, a war of words wages in the undercurrent—a subtle struggle over the language used to define the discussion.

Are the millions of people in the United States who are not here lawfully “illegal” or are they “undocumented”?

The question is not mere semantics, activists and experts say: Choosing one over the other exposes allegiances and stokes the embers of animosity.

Take for example the ballots that await Maryland voters in this November’s election. Question 4—the referendum on Maryland’s version of the “Dream Act”—will ask whether the state should allow “undocumented immigrants” to be eligible for in-state tuition.

Which term do you prefer, and why? Tell us in comments or vote in our poll. 

Immigrant advocates tend to abhor “illegal” as a racially charged epithet that dehumanizes the people it's applied to.

Their opponents deride “undocumented” as politically correct pandering, and most of the nation’s media outlets dismiss it as a euphemism that portrays a person’s lack of legal status as a mere afterthought, as if to diminish the severity of having sneaked across the border or overstayed a visa.

In newspeak, “illegal immigrant” is ostensibly the norm, per decree of the Associated Press Stylebook, the standard-bearer for newspaper reporters and editors.

Last year’s update to the AP Stylebook retained “illegal immigrant” despite continued pleas from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and other groups, reported Poynter.org

AP’s reasoning?

“Undocumented suggests that the issue is more about paperwork than one’s legal right to be in a country,” AP’s David Minthorn told Poynter.

Immigrant activists are pushing back with the national Drop the I-Word campaign, which pressures media outlets to stop using the purportedly pejorative terms.

The U.S. Supreme Court rekindled the debate this summer by dodging it altogether: “Undocumented” and “illegal” were both conspicuously missing from the court’s June 25 ruling to uphold the core of Arizona’s controversial immigration law. The justices opted instead for “unlawful” and “unauthorized” as modifiers of the legalistic descriptor “alien.”

The court’s linguistic leapfrogging set off a polemical uproar as pundits pushed the primacy of one term over the other. A pair of op-eds on CNN.com neatly encapsulated the debate.

In the first, Charles Garcia saw the Supreme Court’s omission of “illegal” as the onset of a “humanistic approach” to eventual immigration reform and bluntly declared “illegal” to be nothing short of a racial slur.

“If you don't pay your taxes, are you an illegal? What if you get a speeding ticket? A murder conviction? No. You're still not an illegal. Even alleged terrorists and child molesters aren't labeled illegals,” Garcia wrote.

The rebuttal by Ruben Navarrette argued that “undocumented” is both inaccurate and absurd, while “illegal immigrant” is the more factual.

“The phrase is accurate. It's the shoe that fits. It's reality. And, as is often the case with reality, it's hard for some people to accept,” Navarrette wrote.

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wigglwagon September 03, 2012 at 02:04 AM
Kathy is not correct. Any way you try to spin it, they are in violation of the laws. They are sorry excuses for human beings because they do not give a hoot about whomever is in their way. They could not care less about the citizen and legal resident families that they force into unemployment and poverty by under bidding them for jobs.
Buck Harmon September 03, 2012 at 02:16 AM
You are of course, entitled to your own limiting opinion on this issue. I won't try to wiggle around it.......especially while you're wagon your tail..
Just a guy September 04, 2012 at 02:05 PM
I really don't see a whole lot of American citizens lining up for day labor, landscaping, lettuce or fruit picking jobs... It's not like there are lines of Mexican or Latino engineers pushing Americans down the economic wage pile... If you deported all the illegal workers, I bet lettuce picked by Americans would be $10 a head. Look, most of the people that come here are just looking for a better life, a job, a better opportunity for their kids... Almost all of them would prefer to be tax paying, law abiding people. With the changes to the immigration laws since the 1970's that's not possible. If you want to fight illegal immigration, help the poor countries better themselves. If they could find jobs at home, they won't come here. But since they are here, why not try to make them productive and law abiding?
SOUTHWESTMINSTER September 04, 2012 at 04:21 PM
Kinda like the "War on Drugs"

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