The resurgence of the term ‘illegal immigrants’
In the past few weeks, we’ve noticed a resurgence in the casual use of the terms “illegal immigrants” and even “illegal aliens” by media organizations like TPM, Politico, the Washington Post and the New York Times.
They have always been a bit spotty about style as far as this goes, hewing to a variable section-by-section house style rather than the Associated Press’s stylebook overall — which in April of 2013 changed its guidelines for media use: “Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant.”
The AP change represented a victory for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and innumerable Asian and Latino journalists, editors and advocates who had long asserted that the compound word could not be understood as neutral — as it had no equivalent in common usage. Illegal driver for those with speeding tickets? Illegal filer for those with tax irregularities? Illegal rider for those who jump the turnstiles on the subway?
In fact, the association of the word “illegal” with a particular subset of individuals in our nation has been so strongly drawn by repeated political and media use of “illegal immigrants” and “illegal aliens,” that many people still cannot read a sentence like the one in the preceding paragraph without at first misunderstanding and assuming (if only for an instant) that the driver, the filer and the rider mentioned are all undocumented.
Jonathan Rosa, a linguistic anthropologist writing for the American Anthropological Association, explains it this way: “Organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists have described ‘illegal immigrant’ as a ‘politically charged’ phrase that should be reevaluated for its potential violation of the widely embraced journalistic practice of assuming innocence until guilt is proven. Others have made the related case that ‘illegal’ is at best a misleading generalization, at worst a slur. A person diagnosed with cancer is not described as cancerous; however, ‘illegal’ becomes a way of characterizing not just one’s migration status, but also one’s entire person.”
If — as we’ve noticed in the past weeks — news media organizations are deliberately choosing to break AP style and revert to use of of the term “illegal immigrants,” it will have an impact.
Google trends show that searches using the term “illegal immigrants” dropped by nearly 50 percent from April 2013 (when AP announced its stylebook change) to August. At that point the searches using those terms dipped to their lowest level since 2005. It isn’t much of a stretch to think that the change in wording in news media organizations that adhere to AP style guidelines was one of the contributing factors in the decline.
Looking again at those Google trends for the search terms “illegal immigrants,” shows the term spiking in July of 2014 (during the unaccompanied minors at the border crisis), and again in November of 2014 when President Obama outlined his executive actions on immigration (and news organizations such as Business Standard ran headlines like: “Obama provides legal status to five million illegal immigrants”).
Is there a spike in “illegal immigrants” searches now?
Well, looking at the Google trends for June it is way too early to tell. But, we’re only three days into the month as we write this editorial and already we’re at the same number of searches with that term as the whole month of May.
So, why now? Why are media organizations reverting to a term that those who are most frequently criminalized by it consider a slur?
We don’t know. But like so much that has to do with immigration reform in the past years, what we once celebrated as a victory hasn’t remained one.
Will the discussion about immigrants and immigration slide further back to vituperative and destructive mode?
Will we go back to using slur and generalization to characterize those who are our neighbors, friends, colleagues and associates?
Will we, years from now, look back and realize that this moment — poised between a return to criminalized language and characterization, or not — was the moment we chose to see the dream impoverished and light of our torch extinguished?