Latino Voices

'Illegal vs. Undocumented' Debate: Obama And Romney Weigh In At Town Hall Meeting

It’s official: describing immigrants without papers as “illegal” rather than “undocumented” is a political act.

The presidential candidates seem to have taken note of a debate raging in the media over whether to drop the term “illegal immigrant,” which immigrant rights activists and many Latinos view as offensive and inaccurate.

President Barack Obama, an advocate for a pathway to citizenship for the country’s 11.2 million undocumented immigrants, avoided using the term “illegal immigrant” at Tuesday night’s debate. GOP candidate Mitt Romney, who favors policies cracking down on illegal immigration, instead opted for the term “illegals.”

When explaining his immigration stance to the audience, Obama referred to immigrants without legal residency as “undocumented workers.” Rather than referring to the undocumented broadly as criminals, he humanized them and hinted at the complexity of the problem -- something media outlets across the board tend to advocate.

[I]f we’re going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they’re trying to figure out how to feed their families.

Romney, on the other hand, drew a sharp distinction between “legal immigrants” and “illegals” as he defended the concept of “self-deporation”:

[S]elf-deportation says let it — let people make their own choice. What I was saying is, we’re not going to round up 12 million people, undocumented, illegals, and take them out of the nation. Instead, let — make — people make their own choice. And if they — if they find that — that they can’t get the benefits here that they want and they can’t find the job they want, then they’ll make a decision to go a place where — where they have better opportunities.

The difference between the candidates’ word choice echoed a simmering debate occurring between Hispanic media and immigrant rights activists, led by Jose Antonio Vargas and Univision, against The New York Times and other media outlets over the ethics of the term “illegal immigrant.”

Himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Vargas has advocated for the news media to abandon the term “illegal immigrant,” arguing that it unnecessarily stigmatizes people by lumping those generally guilty of a civil violation with those guilty of committing a crime.

Romney’s use of the noun “illegals” puts him at the far right end of the spectrum. Many mainstream U.S. media organizations continue to use the term “illegal immigrant,” most have struck the noun “illegals” from their stylebooks. (Fox News provides a glaring exception.) Deputy Standards Editor for the Associated Press David Minthorn described the term “illegals” as “uneccessarily harsh as a generic description” last year in a report for NBC News.

Reporter Cristina Costantini of ABC News/Univision hammered The New York Times in a series of articles this month after the paper’s public editor Margaret Sullivan said she didn’t see a benefit to dropping the term “illegal immigrant.” The articles painted the grey lady as old fashioned, out of touch with Latinos, and just plain inaccurate in its defense of the term.

Several newspapers serving largely Latino audiences, such as The Miami Herald and The San Antonio Express-News, dropped the term “illegal immigrant” long ago. Over the last couple of years, television news networks like CNN, ABC and NBC have also pulled away from the term as they try to reach out to Latino audiences. Nearly half of Latino voters view the term “illegal immigrant” as offensive, according to a Fox News Latino poll conducted earlier this year. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists has been calling upon the news media to drop the term since 2006.

The Huffington Post stopped using the term “illegal immigrant” in 2008.

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