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No Human Being is "Illegal"
Published on Wednesday, May 24, 2006 by the Miami Herald
No Human Being is "Illegal"
by Mirta Ojito

I have been allotted 700 words to make a simple and direct point about the use of the phrase ''illegal immigrant.'' Here it is then: ''Illegal immigrant'' is a term that no self-respecting journalist ought to ever use. Not because it is politically incorrect, or inhumane -- though an argument can be made for both -- but because it is imprecise.

It adds nothing to the political debate and, more important, it says nothing about the person(s) being written about. Good journalists seek details and work with facts. Mediocre journalists are content with labels and generalities.

At the top of the class

''Illegal immigrant'' does not tell the reader how how Rosanna, from the Dominican Republic, overstayed her tourist visa a decade ago and settled in New York. Or how Angelita, from El Salvador, crossed three borders before arriving, 10 years ago, shoeless and famished, in Texas. Or how Eduardo Suñol, a native of Cuba, arrived at Miami International Airport without documents 6 ½ years ago, spent five days detained in Krome and last week graduated at the top of his class of nearly 300 students from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

I am aware that in journalism words count, especially at a time when readers are said to be suffering from diminishing attention spans and newspapers have ever shrinking news holes. I'm not proposing that reporters write the biography of every immigrant they quote in a story or refer to in passing. What I'm proposing is that reporters refrain from qualifying human beings according to their immigration status.

Instead, let's describe what they did and, if we must, label the act, but not the person, as illegal. Thus, we'd have Rosanna, who stayed in the country illegally after her tourist visa expired; Angelita, who crossed the border illegally; and Eduardo, who sneaked into the country without documents. All of them committed illegal acts. None of them are illegal beings.

To do otherwise, to lump everyone's life and complex circumstances into a generic label is to do a disservice to the craft.

Pervasive phrase

To write ''illegal immigrant'' is, in fact, akin to writing words or phrases such as ''countless,'' ''a few years ago'' and ''probably not uncommon.'' I don't allow my students to turn in copy with such generalities. Why then do reporters, editors and headline writers across the nation see nothing wrong with a label such as ''illegal immigrant''? This newspaper, for example, permitted reporters and columnists to use it 201 times this year. All the usages couldn't have been critical, or you wouldn't be reading this column today.

I suspect that the phrase is so pervasive because many reporters and editors intuitively understand that the majority of their readers do not find it questionable and may even prefer it. In the current heated and polarizing immigration debate, it is the presence of the immigrant itself, his or her very existence in the United States, that is being objected to by those who would have the borders sealed off. The immigrant's status is of less consequence to the anti-immigrant crowd than the actual human being who speaks only Spanish and tends to have caramel-colored skin.

The war -- and it is a war -- against immigrants is being waged because an ever-growing number of Americans are questioning and redefining who gets to be an American. Language is one way to make that distinction clear.

Choose words carefully

Of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, about six million are of Mexican origin. The others come from Asia, Europe, Africa, Canada and other countries in the Americas. And yet, I have never seen a French waiter described as an illegal immigrant by anyone other than, perhaps, the authorities.

The debate, as it is framed now, has become a strictly anti-Hispanic immigration battle cry. And nothing rallies this nation quicker and more efficiently than the presence of an alien. Particularly one who is also considered ``illegal.''

Reporters must not allow their craft to be used by those who want to draw a distinction between human beings according to their immigration status. Because in journalism words not only count but they also matter, it's imperative that we get them right.

Mirta Ojito, the author of "Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus," teaches a course on immigration reporting at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. Email to:

© 2006 the Miami Herald


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