Ruben Navarrett Jr / Politics

In Cross Hairs of Word Police

SAN DIEGO -- There is a campaign under way to shame media companies into abandoning the term "illegal immigrant" and replacing it with kinder and gentler euphemisms such as "undocumented worker."

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists -- which I've been a member of for two decades, and which has rarely stuck its neck out to defend Hispanic journalists, let alone immigrants -- has even gone so far as to suggest that the phrase causes hate crimes.

The crusade against the "I-word" began in September when, at an online journalism conference, freelance journalist and activist Jose Antonio Vargas put media companies on notice. He said they would be monitored and when they used "illegal immigrant" -- which he claims "dehumanizes" people -- the infraction would be duly recorded.

Vargas -- who was born in the Philippines and last year revealed his status as an illegal immigrant (he prefers "American without papers") -- identified The Associated Press and The New York Times as "two main targets."

Both institutions have since defended the term and continue to use it. In response, Univision attacked the Times as being behind the curve and out of touch with Latinos.

Let's hear it for common sense. Media companies -- and the journalists who work for them -- need to stand up to these pressure tactics and continue to use the term. Here are 10 reasons why:

-- The wording is accurate. When you enter the United States without permission or overstay a visa, you break a law. Vargas notes that "being in a country without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one." True. But the word "illegal" simply means against the law, and civil laws can be broken just like criminal ones.

-- The proposed change is, for the most part, about being politically correct. And this is not a good spot from which to practice journalism. My profession isn't about making folks comfortable. That's public relations. At its best, journalism is about making them uncomfortable.

-- The word police simply want to sanitize the debate, so that immigration reformers don't get their hands dirty by condoning illegal activity.

-- One way to sanitize is to minimize the offense. The idea is to advance the argument that illegal immigration isn't really a crime, just an example of desperate people doing what they have done for centuries -- chasing opportunity to survive.

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Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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