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“Illegal Aliens” and Illegal Immigrants”

By Fernando Dovalina
(Dovalina retired from The Houston Chronicle in 2000 after a 37-year career in journalism that included being The Chronicle’s assistant managing editor for international coverage. He can be reached at

AP style has moved away from the phrase “illegal alien,” and the phrase should not be used, except in compelling direct quotes. But AP still hangs on to “illegal immigrant,” which many Hispanics find as repellant as “illegal aliens.”

Below are my arguments against using either term. Maybe I have missed something in my arguments, and I would appreciate hearing the other side of this argument from fellows in the program.

1. The terms are contrary to usage in the English language.

People are not illegal; acts, and, occasionally, things, such as drugs, are. A Google search of “illegal,” indicates that, in the first 100 usages, the only other group of people labeled “illegal” were “employers,” and this term was used by a rabidly anti-immigrant group. “Illegal employers”? No worthy newspaper uses that term, and yet, companies that hire immigrants illegally in this country are as “illegal” as the immigrants. Newspapers don’t use the term “illegal employers” because it runs counter to English usage, i.e., it is stupid.

If a doctor’s license is revoked, but the doctor continues to practice, he is not called a “suspected illegal doctor.” If a banker defrauds his bosses, he is not called a “suspected illegal banker.” When we don’t have one-word nouns (burglar, murderer, bigamist) to describe people who have been found guilty of committing illegal acts, we describe what they have done, or state what the charge is against them: “Jones is accused of practicing medicine without a license.” “Heatherton was found guilty of operating a radio station without FCC approval.”

Newspapers should use the same logic with people who cross the border in violation of immigration laws. The phrases “illegal aliens” and “illegal immigrants” were created because of the need to have short and handy phrases to describe people who cross the border illegally. Journalists, especially headline writers, don’t want to do away with this usage, and who can blame them? We have no perfect alternative, but the other choices, “undocumented immigrants,” or “undocumented workers,” are slightly better, even though they are awkward and unwieldy and smack of political correctness.

A worse usage is the noun “illegals.” That one should be used only in quotes that are absolutely essential to the story. If that was a worthy word, someone could argue that it is unclear. What are we talking about here? Drugs? Fraudulent passports? Why is the noun reserved for immigrants?

Hispanics, especially Mexican-Americans, object to “illegal immigrant” because it has become synonymous with Mexicans (and other people from south of the border) who cross the border illegally. What’s wrong with that is that it is seldom used to describe any other nationalities, and when it is, it is almost never used to describe Europeans, or Canadians, or Australians, or white Africans. To many Hispanics, the term has, in effect, become the acceptable synonym for the epithet “wetback,” even though “illegal alien” obviously does not carry the same derisive weight.

2. The terms “illegal immigrant” and “illegal alien” run counter to journalism standards that keep us from convicting someone suspected of a crime.

Most people who are caught in this country illegally are never tried and found guilty of a crime. They are, instead, deported. If the “illegal” part of the term “illegal alien” were that important, our jails would be filled with millions of people who entered the country without the proper papers, usually to try to find a job, not exactly on of the most heinous crimes against man.

If your newspaper insists on using “illegal immigrant,” it ought to, at the very least, also insist that the term be changed to “suspected illegal immigrant.”

Of course, this standard also applies to “undocumented immigrant.” It should be “suspected undocumented immigrant.”