How people feel about illegal immigration is often conveyed by the word they choose to refer to people who cross the border illegally.
To some, they are undocumented workers. Others call them illegal immigrants. Some call them by more pejorative terms, such as "illegals" or "illegal aliens."
Beyond policy disagreements, the semantics of immigration --and specifically the word used in describing the millions of foreigners who have overstayed their visas or have entered the country illegally-- has become one of the most sensitive and inflammatory aspects of the immigration debate.
A national Fox News Latino poll of likely Latino voters conducted under the direction of Latin Insights and released Monday shows almost half of respondents, or 46 percent, say the term "illegal immigrant" is offensive, while only a little over a third, or 35 percent, think the term is accurate. About 7 percent are neutral about the term.
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“Calling people illegal or an illegal immigrant has become normalized even though it’s a term that’s inaccurate, it’s dehumanizing and it’s politically charged,” said Mónica Novoa, coordinator of the Drop the I-Word public campaign. “It’s anti-immigrant, anti-Latino language that’s harmful.”
The Drop the I-Word campaign began two years ago by the online magazine Colorlines. Their efforts have targeted politicians and the media and urged them to stop using the term "illegal immigrant" and use "undocumented worker" or "undocumented immigrant" instead. A few organizations, including the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Unity Journalists of Color, the umbrella organization for minority journalism groups, have heeded the call.
Some media organizations like the Miami Herald and Fox News Latino use "undocumented immigrant" or "unauthorized immigrant" rather than "illegal immigrant."
"The word illegal is an accurate description for actions, but not individuals," says Fox News Latino Managing Editor Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush. "We don't use it to describe people who commit other crimes. We write about unlicensed drivers, for example, not illegal drivers."
But the term "illegal immigrant" is used by some of the largest media organizations, including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press. Many believe the term accurately reflects the person's legal status. They are in the country illegally, therefore they are an illegal immigrant.
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“It is technically correct,” said Ira Mehlman, media director the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “They are in the country illegally. It’s not undocumented worker who left their wallet at home.”
One thing it does show, Mehlman said, is that the labels people use matters. He said the words that are used set the tone of the conversation.
“There is an effort try to frame language in a way that states your position,” he said. “The words you use change the dynamics of the conversation.”
Some media organizations agree.
“We feel that the term [undocumented] is sometimes used to indicate that it’s not really a legal violation,” AP Deputy Standards Editor David Minthorn told Poynter, a journalism think tank, last year. “We’re trying to be neutral, and if we adopt that term in every case it would be imprecise. So, we just prefer not to use it at all.”
Nevertheless, the argument over what labels to apply has become increasingly heated as the broader debate on immigration policy has become more polarized. And it’s not just an issue in longstanding Latino communities.
In Utah, a Latino legislator tried to propose legislation that would require lawmakers to undergo “cultural sensitivity training” as part of their orientation that would have taught them to start using the term undocumented immigrant. In Utah, lawmakers still refer to the undocumented as “illegal aliens” – a term some people call almost as offensive as the n-word.
The bill was struck down, but the lawmaker, Senate Minority Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said it started a very important conversation.
“It’s important for people to understand that we prefer the term undocumented because it’s more accurate. I think by and large, most folks came legally and overstayed their visa, so at most they are committing a civil infraction,” said Romero, a third-generation Mexican who plans to run for San Lake County Mayor. “To call them illegal is inaccurate and unnecessarily offensive.”
The 2010 Census showed that there are 50 million Hispanics in the United States. About 21 million are registered to vote.
The Fox News Latino/Latin Insights poll was conducted by Latin Insights, a New York based independent research company, and compiled through a telephone survey conducted among a nationally representative sample of 1,200 likely Latino voters. The respondents were given the option of completing the survey in English and Spanish.
The margin of error for the poll is +/- 2.7 percent with 95 percent confidence.