Jose Antonio Vargas Restarts ‘Illegal' v. ‘Undocumented' Debate, Highlighting Role of Latino Media

'Illegal' Or Undocumented? Pulitzer Prize Winner Restarts Debate

Jose Antonio Vargas may not have convinced the New York Times or the Associated Press to stop using the term “illegal immigrant,” but he’s restarted the conversation.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist-turned-activist has pushed for media to drop the term “illegal immigrant” since coming out as undocumented last year, arguing that the modifier is offensive and inaccurate because it criminalizes people rather than their actions. (Many immigration violations are civil rather than criminal offenses). In a speech to the Online News Association on Friday, Vargas said he’s now targeting two standard-setting news giants: the New York Times and the Associated Press.

While Vargas has yet to convince them, his comments resparked the debate and highlighted how the recent growth of Latino media has changed the context.

View Vargas' speech below. Vargas' comments begin after 17.30.

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Both the New York Times and the Associated Press defended using the term “illegal immigrant” in response to Vargas’ speech, but added that they refrain from using it as a blanket statement to reflect a more nuanced perspective.

The Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan said in a blog post that she doesn’t yet know enough about the issue to take a stand, but that she wants to learn more.

“I was very impressed by Margaret Sullivan and her openness,” Vargas told The Huffington Post, which uses the term 'undocumented immigrant' when referring to the person, and 'illegal immigration' when referring to the action. “I hope we can really have a conversation about this.”

Sullivan also sought the opinion of the paper's immigration correspondent Julia Preston, who said she felt dissatisfied with the Times' current policy, but said the term 'illegal' immigrant has valid uses.

"I think we need a little more flexibility,” Preston said in the blog post. “But we should use the term at times – it is accurate. It is a violation of law for a foreign-born person to be present without legal status.”

“’Illegal immigrant’ had been the preferred term at AP,” Associated Press Director of Media Relations Paul Colford said in an email to several news organizations. “It ceased being the preferred term last year.”

While the AP still uses “illegal immigrant” as a general term, Colford wrote, the agency’s reporters try to detail circumstances rather than categorizing people.

“In the case of a person brought here as a child without permission, the term can be misleading, since the person wasn’t a willing “immigrant” at all,” Colbert wrote. “In such a case, AP reporters might simply state the situation.”

The term “illegal immigrant” causes the most controversy among Latinos. Four out of five of the estimated population of 11.1 million undocumented immigrants were born in Latin America, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Some 46 percent of those surveyed in a Fox News Latino poll of likely Latino voters conducted in February said they found the term offensive, while only 35 percent described the term as accurate. Univision News is currently asking readers how they feel about the term.

Not coincidentally, some of the mainstream newspapers that have dropped the term “illegal immigrant” in recent years, including the Miami Herald and the San Antonio News-Express, serve communities with large Latino populations.

“This is not only a political story, not simply a journalistic issue. This is also a business story,” Vargas said.

Nevertheless, efforts by large media companies to reach out to the Latino market over the last couple of years have highlighted the divide between news that caters to Hispanics and news geared toward the general market.

Fox News Latino filed a report on Vargas' campaign, which noted that the site prefers the term “undocumented immigrant.” Vargas pushed back on Twitter, urging the site’s parent publication, Fox News, to do the same:

The tension isn't unique to Fox News.

ABC News, which recently established a partnership with Univision, says it now prefers the term “undocumented.”

"Our goal and policy is to use the term undocumented immigrant or worker, but there have certainly been instances where we have fallen short of that standard,” said senior vice president of ABC News Jeffrey Schneider, according to a piece published by Univision/ABC News.

In articles published as recently as August, however, continued to alternate between the terms “undocumented” and “illegal” to refer to immigrants without legal status. A slideshow published by ABC News on June 26 refers to Jose Antonio Vargas as an “illegal immigrant.”

While the New York Times and AP don’t show signs of changing their editorial policy at this time, Vargas can claim a smaller victory: the Arizona Daily Wildcat, the school paper for the University of Arizona in Tucson, is considering changing its editorial policy in response to Vargas’ piece.

“Although the Daily Wildcat maintains an in-house style guide that is usually updated every semester, and we generally prefer “undocumented,” our style manual does not dictate a particular term,” Managing Editor Bethany Barnes wrote on Monday. “Perhaps it’s time to revise it.”

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