It's time for the Associated Press and the New York Times to join the rest of us

Journalist Jose Vargas (above, when he was in Philadelphia in May) called on media organizations on Sept. 21 to change their stylebooks. Foto: Gabriela Barrantes/AL DÍA NEWS

The Online News Association met this past week. As you might expect, they tweeted a lot. When Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Jose Vargas was at the podium Sept. 21 giving the keynote speech, a veritable social media storm erupted. 

"It's time we retire the word and the term 'illegal immigrant' in referring to people. It is not only an inhumane term —it is a political term, it is an unfair term, it is an inaccurate term," said Vargas. Himself an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines, Vargas called particularly on the New York Times and the Associated Press to change their stylebooks to a less politicized  term. 

The majority of responses from journalists we tracked on Twitter, responded to Vargas' challenge cautiously, or refuted contention that undocumented was a less politically charged term.

Robert McMillan, a journalist from New Jersey who writes for Reuters, tweeted: "I always thought 'undocumented' was equally politicized. But maybe I'm wrong."

Mike Roe, a journalist from L.A., tweeted:  "Agreed on it being an equally if not more politicized term at this point."

Vargas' comments, and the hubbub surrounding it, prompted a restatement of the New York Times' editorial stance by Phil Corbett, associate managing editor for standards, in an interview with Poynter. "We do think the phrases 'illegal immigrants' and 'illegal immigration' are accurate, factual and as neutral as we can manage under the circumstances," Corbett said.

Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times' Public Editor wrote a blog post about it Sept. 24, and issued an invitation for the public to comment about it.

It is interesting, if infuriating, to see this "conversation" so delayed in the New York Times. We, along with our fellow members of the Latino press, have long urged the Associated Press and all mainstream media to join with the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists in changing their  stylebooks and dropping the "i-word." Neither media bellwether has seen fit to do so.

Predictably enough, the public editor's blog is full of comments like this one, by Matt, from Philly: "The political correctness of not calling an illegal immigrant an illegal immigrant is nauseating." 

Our comment — because, of course, we commented — didn't make it onto the posted comments, but it will come as no surprise to you who are longtime Al Día readers. We said:

We call uninsured drivers uninsured, not illegal. We call unlicensed nail technicians (or whatever) unlicensed, not illegal. When a person owns an unregistered handgun, he or she is not described as an illegal owner. It is only immigrants who are described this way. Not only are undocumented or unauthorized more accurate in many cases, they are more in sync with the style of uninsured, unlicensed and unregistered —which all describe the failure to secure permissions, authorizations and requirements but don't dehumanize the individual in the process.

It is disingenuous to aver that "illegal immigrant" is a neutral term, or that its use in a newspaper of record in any way safeguards neutrality. Its usage ends up validating the shortened form "illegals" (which has replaced "spic" as the favorite epithet to fling at Latinos irrespective of documentation status), or at the very least, muddies the waters. And it is more than just words on paper. It has real consequences, as the cases of Luis Ramirez and Marcelo Lucero show.

As a member of the Latino press, I'm appalled that the NYT and AP haven't followed the Association of Hispanic Journalists' lead on this. Given that 1 in 3 non-Latino Americans thinks the majority of Latinos are "illegal immigrants," it is a matter of agency. Will you continue to stand behind terminology found offensive by members of the ethnic group most frequently impugned by it? Will you continue to arrogantly assert that you know better than us?

We hope you, our reader, stand with us on this.

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