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Ex-journalist calls for end of use of ‘illegal’ immigrant by media

Jose Antonio Vargas is a former reporter for The Washington Post.
(Photo by Ryan Pfluger – The New York Times)

Jose Antonio Vargas is making style an issue.

On Sept. 21, Vargas – a former journalist nationally known for his New York Times Magazine story announcing his status as an undocumented immigrant – challenged journalists and their style choices on illegal immigration.

End the use of “illegal immigrant,” Vargas said, pushing the use of “undocumented immigrant” instead. Vargas, who founded DefineAmerican to bring new voices into the immigration debate, criticized The New York Times and The Associated Press for their use of “illegal immigrant.”

”Illegal immigrant,” Vargas said,  “dehumanizes and marginalizes” those it describes. But the Times and AP editors both said they approach their usage of “illegal immigrant” sensitively. Both outlets said they stand by their style because it accurately conveys the illegality of entering into and living in this country without permission.

Adopting “undocumented immigrant” as the stylistic rule would diminish the significance of legal status, said Phil Corbett, associate managing editor for standards at the Times.

Anyone standing on the dividing line in this debate can see each side makes a compelling case. While “illegal immigrant” may portray immigrants as illegal people, “undocumented immigrant” may downplay illegal immigration’s significance.

I don’t agree with Vargas ­– at least not yet.

As journalists, we have an obligation to accurately capture the world we live in. Sometimes, that means we will hurt some people’s feelings.

But we are not always beholden to the feelings of others. We need to address the legal issues regarding immigration.

While I may sound callous, I believe journalists can use some care for the individual’s situation in our reporting and editing. We can flesh out the nuances and rightly express the complex relationship between immigration and America.

– Riley Johnson

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