‘Illegal immigrant’: A phrase on its way out?


The Los Angeles Times and The Denver Post won’t be using the phrase “illegal immigrant” anymore. At the L.A. Times, “undocumented immigrant” is out, too.

The reason isn’t necessarily a political one. It’s linguistic.

The Wednesday Times memo
announcing the change states:

“‘Illegal immigrants’ is overly broad and does not accurately apply in every situation. The alternative suggested by the 1995 guidelines, ‘undocumented
immigrants,’ similarly falls short of our goal of precision. It is also untrue in many cases, as with immigrants who possess passports or other
documentation but lack valid visas.”

The Post’s editor-in-chief wrote in a Thursday blog post that, “if we know the actual
circumstances, we will describe them.”

With that change, the L.A. Times and Denver Post have become the second and third large news organizations in about a month’s time to reject the term
“illegal immigrant.” The Associated Press removed the phrase from its Stylebook in early April.

In a blog post in support of the AP’s change, National Association of
Latino Journalists President Hugo Balta wrote: “Human beings are not illegal. Actions are illegal.”

The term, along with “illegal alien,” has been in use in the United States for more than 100 years, but jumped substantially in use in the 1970s and 1980s,
according to

an informal Google Books review

In October 2012, a group of 24 scholars, including linguists, issued a memo explaining
why the term should be put out to pasture. It states:

“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.”

Not all news organizations are dropping the term, however. Last week, The New York Times said it was

altering its use of the phrase, but not eliminating it

As for what this ultimately means for communicators and PR pros, it’s likely some who deal with immigration will phase the phrase out of their output,
while others will continue to use it. If you’ve used it in the past, will you do so again? Let us know in the comments.

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