The Arizona Daily Wildcat will no longer use the term “illegal immigrant” in its news copy when referring to those who are living in this country in violation of the law. Instead, individuals who fit the description will be termed “undocumented.”
The decision by top staff at the University of Arizona student newspaper comes at the conclusion of a roughly two-month process that involved internal newsroom debate and solicitation of readers’ perspectives.
Wildcat managing editor and readers’ representative Bethany Barnes explained that the style issue was especially relevant for the paper “because of Arizona’s proximity to the border and how frequently border security issues come up.”
Prominent immigration activist Jose Antonio Vargas– an admitted “undocumented immigrant”– sparked the paper’s interest in exploring the possible style switch in late September with a public call he issued to media.
As he noted at the time, “When journalists, who are supposed to seek neutrality and fairness, use the term, they are politicizing an already political issue. . . . And the term dehumanizes and marginalizes the people it seeks to describe. Think of it this way . . . If someone is driving under the influence, we call them a ‘drunk driver,’ not an ‘illegal driver.’”
Soon after, Barnes wrote on behalf of the Wildcat, “In journalism, we try to pick words that will be the most clear and truthful. It’s why we don’t write that someone ‘passed away’ or is ‘no longer with us.’ News isn’t about softening a blow, it’s about reporting what happened. Sometimes accuracy is grisly. Sometimes accuracy hurts people’s feelings. But when it comes to putting the word ‘illegal’ in front of ‘immigrant,’ are we telling the story in the most accurate way possible?”
Earlier this month, Barnes answered the question. In a note, headlined “We’re Changing the Way We Talk About Immigrants,” Barnes argued “using ‘undocumented’ isn’t about trying to talk around the issue or dress it up as something it isn’t. Using ‘undocumented’ is about avoiding characterizing someone’s entire personhood by one civil offense.”
As she wrote, “While ‘undocumented’ may not cut to the chase, it doesn’t paint a false picture either. You wouldn’t call someone who was evicted for not paying rent an illegal renter or someone who double parked an illegal driver. . . . But ‘illegal immigrant’ falsely implies that everyone who is in the country illegally is a criminal. Many of the people who are here illegally are here not because they broke the law, but because they were brought here at a young age. As a student newspaper, that situation undoubtedly rings true for some readers.”
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