New York Times Won’t Ban ‘Illegal Immigrant,’ But Reporters Can Consider ‘Alternatives’

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Photo: MICHAEL REYNOLDS

The new push for immigration reform revived the debate among politicians and journalists on the use of the term "illegal immigrant," and since the Associated Press and USA Today announced earlier this month that they would no longer be referring to humans as "illegal," the New York Times has been under more pressure to drop the term. On Tuesday, people gathered outside the New York Times headquarters to protest the use of the "I-word" and hand-deliver a petition with more than 70,000 signatures to Jill Abramson. A few hours later the paper announced it's tweaking its stance; the Times isn't giving up "illegal immigrant," but now reporters and editors are encouraged to "consider alternatives."

Philip B. Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards, made the announcement shortly after the protest, but made it clear that the paper wasn't just giving in to their demands. He said in a statement that editors have been deliberating the change for months, and "key reporters and editors" were already informed of the new policy.

The Huffington Post has the text of the new entry in the Times’ style manual:

illegal immigrant may be used to describe someone who enters, lives in or works in the United States without proper legal authorization. But be aware that in the debate over immigration, some people view it as loaded or offensive. Without taking sides or resorting to euphemism, consider alternatives when appropriate to explain the specific circumstances of the person in question, or to focus on actions: who crossed the border illegally; who overstayed a visa; who is not authorized to work in this country.

Unauthorized is also an acceptable description, though it has a bureaucratic tone. Undocumented is the term preferred by many immigrants and their advocates, but it has a flavor of euphemism and should be used with caution outside quotations. Illegal immigration, because it describes the issue rather than an individual, is less likely than illegal immigrant to be seen as troubling.

Take particular care in describing people whose immigration status is complex or subject to change – for example, young people brought to this country as children, many of whom are eligible for temporary reprieves from deportation under federal policies adopted in 2012.

Do not use illegal as a noun, and avoid the sinister-sounding alien.

Reporter and activist Jose Antonio Vargas, who helped organize Tuesday's demonstration, wasn't satisfied with the paper's response. “The New York Times can’t have it both ways,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the bottom line is I am for reporters, including reporters at The New York Times, to be as descriptive and contextual as possible.” The paper's report on the change acknowledges, "This nuanced approach to the term 'illegal immigrant' was far from what the protesters who appeared outside of the Eighth Avenue entrance to The Times building had sought."