September 29, 2012 · 7 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Lawrence Downes, who writes editorial about immigration for the New York Times, is perplexed about the use of the term “illegal” to describe undocumented U.S. residents. Margaret Sullivan, the Times‘ new public editor, is flummoxed, too. I’m here to help.
Both writers refer to a challenge which Jose Antonio Vargas issued to the New York Times and the Associated Press. He asked them to stop using the term “illegal immigrant.” Vargas, who is probably the U.S.’s most famous “illegal immigrant,” said last week, “The term dehumanizes and marginalizes the people it seeks to describe. Think of it this way, in what other context do we call someone illegal?” “Vargas … cited the examples of underage drivers and people driving while intoxicated, neither of whom would be referred to as ‘illegal drivers’ by the media,” according to Ted Hesson of ABC News.
Margaret Sullivan begged off answering Vargas’ challenge by saying that she “didn’t know enough.” But she did report on the response of Philip Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards at the Times. Corbett wrote to Mallory Tenore of the media-watcher site Poynter, saying in part,
… in referring in general terms to the issue of people living in the United States without legal papers, we do think the phrases ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘illegal immigration’ are accurate, factual and as neutral as we can manage under the circumstances. It is, in fact, illegal to enter, live or work in this country without valid documents. Some people worry that we are labeling immigrants as ‘criminals’ – but we’re not. ‘Illegal’ is not a synonym for ‘criminal.’ (One can even park ‘illegally,’ though it’s not a criminal offense.)
Corbett writes, “my colleague Julia Preston, who covers immigration, has suggested, we’re trying hard to be neutral on an issue where there isn’t much neutral ground.” Further, Corbett argues that
Proposed alternatives like ‘undocumented’ seem really to be euphemisms – as though this were just a bureaucratic mix-up that can easily be remedied. Often those phrases seem deliberately chosen to try to soften or minimize the significance of the lack of legal status. We avoid those euphemisms just as we avoid phrases that tend to cast a more pejorative light on immigrants. For example, we steer clear of the shorthand ‘illegals’ and also the word ‘aliens,’ both of which we think have needlessly negative connotations.
The Times‘ standards department literally “sets the standards” for the paper. This means that, as of now, the New York Times will continue to use the term “illegal immigrants” to describe undocumented residents. Whether or not Sullivan gathers enough information to take a stance, it will be Corbett’s group that sets the standard.
Lawrence Downes’ position is similar to Corbett’s. He writes, “I use ‘illegal’ somewhat interchangeably with ‘undocumented,’ recognizing that both words are imperfect. I also use ‘unauthorized,’ which is unfamiliar and a little clunky, but has a distinct advantage: while it acknowledges the unlawfulness of someone’s immigration status, it also recognizes that this status can be fixed.”
I don’t doubt that Downes, Corbett and immigration reporter Julia Preston are sincere. I have no reason to think they hold any animosity toward undocumented residents. The personal beliefs of these writers are not the problem, but the writers are exacerbating problems for undocumented people because, as Vargas says, the term “illegal” marginalizes and dehumanizes them.
Unfortunately, the Times writers show more concern for their personal integrity than for the integrity of the New York Times. The newspaper, after all, has readers. Its has a vast and varied readership. In fact, its goal is to have an even greater, more varied readership. But with that goal comes responsibility. While no writer or artist is directly responsible for irresponsible thoughts or actions of her readers or viewers, the writer must at least consider how the audience she hopes to reach will interpret her words. One thing she must consider is whether or not she is using loaded words – words that in and of themselves carry a negative or positive connotation.
I think we can all agree that the word “illegal” is a loaded word. If you don’t think so, consider this: You park your car in front of a fire hydrant. Just as you’re getting out of the vehicle, a passerby says, “Yo, Buddy, you’re illegally parked.” You’ll probably be grateful to the passerby because he’s saved you a ticket or a tow and prevented you from carelessly inhibiting the use of the hydrant if it’s needed. On the other hand, if the passerby says, “Yo, buddy, your car is illegal,” you may not even know what he’s talking about. Hey, the license and registration are current, the car has a new inspection sticker. Now suppose that instead of referring to your illegally-parked car, the passerby points at you and says, loudly, for other strangers to hear, “Hey, this guy is illegal.” You would probably be at least miffed. Now, suppose that happens to you every day, three times a day. Strangers are always calling you “illegal” or “an illegal.” You had a certain perception of yourself, but others uniformly apply an entirely different label to you. After a while, you may begin to accept their judgment, Stockholm Syndrome-style. You may self-identify as “an illegal.” You may think less of yourself. Unlike other people, you are not an “authorized person.” There’s something wanting about you. You have a “defect.”
Corbett of the standards department doesn’t like to use “euphemisms.” But isn’t using loaded words worse? Won’t loaded words inflame where Corbett’s dreaded euphemisms would be simply informational?
The answer lies in reader response. Let’s look at a few of the early responses to Lawrence Downes’ post. A reader named Evelyn Elwell Uyemura writes, “If you park your car in a spot marked ‘no parking,’ does that make it an ‘illegal car’?” This is the same point Vargas made, and I think Uyemura raises it to good effect. (That’s why I borrowed her analogy.)
In reply to Uyemura’s comment, another commenter – Josh Hill – writes, “Er, Evelyn, the car is referred to as having been ‘illegally parked.’” Hill calls Uyemura’s comment an “obviously sophistic remark.” Hill’s comment demonstrates one reason it is a mistake for a newspaper with a broad public readership to use the term “illegal immigrant.” Hill cannot see the difference between “illegal car” – the construction Evelyn Uyemura used – and “illegally parked.” Obviously, a more sophisticated reader – like, say, a New York Times writer, would realize that “car” is a noun – like a person – and “parked” is an adjectival participle; that is, “parked” is a descriptor. Hill doesn’t recognize the difference between (a) the car and (b) its temporary status in front of a fire hydrant. In the Times‘ audience, there will be thousands of readers who make the same mistake Hill does. These readers can’t see the difference between (a) the person and (b) his temporary status. If Julia Preston describes a person as an illegal immigrant, she means to refer to his immigration status, but readers like Hill will surmise she is referring to the person himself. The person Preston describes is, in the minds of such readers, nothing more than “an illegal.” The fact that there is much more to every person than his immigration status eludes these readers.
But it gets worse. (You knew it would.) Another commenter who uses a male avatar and calls himself “Barbie,” writes “This nonsense about what to call them is ridiculous. They need to leave.” That is his entire comment. Barbie is exactly the type of New York Times reader who concerns Vargas. Notice how Barbie “otherizes” undocumented Americans. To Barbie, these Americans are “them” and “they.” He cannot even take the trouble to accord them a noun when a distancing pronoun will suffice. Like Mitt Romney, Barbie suggests “they” should self-deport. Just get out. This is Barbie’s country. Barbie lives in Washington, D.C. Maybe he’s upset because he doesn’t have a Senator or a voting Congressmember, and he is concerned “they” will be granted full citizenship and obtain more rights than he has. Who knows? What we do know is that Barbie has so distanced himself from millions of hardworking Americans that he cannot call them by any name at all. (I tend to call “those people” “Americans” since a majority of them now come from the Americas, and many of them are descended from Americans who were here long before my own ancestors arrived.)
We also know that, by persisting in using the term “illegal immigrants” to describe these Americans, the New York Times is perpetuating Barbie’s prejudices against them. A less loaded word, like “undocumented” or “unauthorized,” may diffuse that thoughtless, knee-jerk inclination to refer to millions of people, here under a variety of circumstances, as unworthy “others.”
Jose Antonio Vargas came to the U.S. from the Philippines when he was twelve years old. He did not come by choice. Further, he is just too old to qualify for President Obama’s executive order allowing deportation deferrals. Is he “an illegal”? In Barbie’s mind, yes, he is. In my mind, he is a brave journalist, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who has earned the right to citizenship – which is something I did not have to do. Ironically, perhaps his most famous piece was an essay for the Times Magazine titled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” published in June 2011. I don’t know how Downes, Corbett, Preston and Margaret Sullivan got to this country – whether, like me, they did it the easy way, or like my husband they had to earn their right to work here. But I do know this: Corbett, Sullivan and Downes should step out of their own insular, self-referencing world long enough to consider the impact their words have on New York Times readers like Josh Hill and Barbie. They should find new terms that don’t serve to further inflame some of their readers’ prejudices against some of their other readers.
The words we use matter, not always because of what we mean by them, but because of the way others receive them. For all of the handwringing of the New York Times writers, it is readers who have proved that Jose Antonio Vargas was right. The New York Times should change its standards.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com