For two weeks, I’ve been listening to people and reading about the term “illegal immigrant.” I have gathered information from readers, advocates, reporters and editors. I even had a face-to-face meeting with the most visible proponent of a change to “undocumented,” Jose Antonio Vargas, who I found to be intelligent, passionate and charming.
And I’ve thought a great deal about this volatile topic.
As public editor, I don’t make rulings on style for The Times. All I can do is weigh in, express an opinion.
After all the buildup, my weighing in may seem anticlimactic, because I see no advantage for Times readers in a move away from the paper’s use of the phrase “illegal immigrant.”
It is clear and accurate; it gets its job done in two words that are easily understood. The same cannot be said of the most frequently suggested alternatives – “unauthorized,” “immigrants without legal status,” “undocumented.” Undocumented, as the immigration reporter Julia Preston noted in an interview with me, has “a new currency” because of a federal policy change involving immigrants who came here as children 15 and under, so the word may be useful in that context.
Just as “illegal tenant” in a real estate story (another phrase you could have seen in Times articles or headlines) is brief and descriptive, so is “illegal immigrant.” In neither case is there an implication that those described that way necessarily have committed a crime, although in some cases they may have. The Times rightly forbids the expressions “illegals” and “illegal aliens.”