WASHINGTON, October 19 (By Sasha Horne for RIA Novosti)
A charge to persuade media to avoid the word “illegal” in reporting on immigrants without legal status has taken center-stage in the US election campaign as President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney vie for support among Latino voters.
Immigration rights advocates argue that use of the word “illegal” presupposes an intrinsic guilt of people – particularly immigrants from Latin America – whose US residency status may be in question, while their opponents insist that the word is non-judgmental, accurate and necessary.
And both sides have clearly captured the attention of Obama and Romney.
“In many ways, the term has been used as propaganda to influence the discussion and in some cases gain favor and lobby for legislation that discriminates against or that has been challenging for the [Hispanic] community,” said Hugo Balta, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), a professional organization representing Hispanics in the news industry.
Tiptoeing around the sensitive issue during his live television debate with Romney earlier this week, Obama described immigrants with uncertain status as “undocumented workers” – a phrasing favored by immigration rights activists – but went on later to refer to them as “folks who are here illegally.”
Romney, who has taken a tougher policy line than Obama on such cases, seemed to be reaching for the best of both worlds, describing people in this situation as “undocumented illegals.” Activists recommend use of the word “undocumented” and strongly oppose use of “illegal” as a noun.
In an opinion piece on Fox News’ Latino-focused website, Ana Perez, a political activist with Presente.org took issue with both candidates’ use of the word.
“We don’t refer to jaywalkers, public nudist, people pulled over traffic violations as ‘illegal’. So why do we continue to insist on calling immigrants without papers ‘illegal’?” she asked in her column.
Over the course of the past several years, several prominent American mainstream media outlets –notably television broadcasters CNN, ABC and NBC – have moved away from use of the term “illegal”, replacing it instead with the word “undocumented”.
They made the switch after immigration rights organizations and the NAHJ deemed the term offensive.
Immigration activists on the opposing side however complain that dropping the word “illegal” is intellectually flabby, legally dubious and amounts to caving into pressure dressed up as political correctness from a special interest group.
“It’s very important for people to use legally accurate language when talking about legal matters,” said Jon Feere, an analyst for the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-partisan think tank in Washington that studies immigration issues.
Feere says the legal term used by the US court system is “illegal alien” and that terms like “undocumented workers” constitute activist language that should not be used by news organizations.
“A legal immigrant who loses his wallet is now undocumented,” said Feere. “I think it is a slap in the face to those who come here legally when we refer to them in the same category as someone who is breaking the law.”
And some news organizations including The New York Times, Fox News Network, and the wire service The Associated Press have defended their use of the phrase “illegal immigrant”, although AP has dropped the use of the noun “illegals” as well as the term “undocumented” from its journalistic stylebook.
Use of the word ‘undocumented’ “may tend to minimize what could be a matter of civil or criminal law, such as evading border controls or residing without legal permission,” wrote David Minthorn, deputy standards editor of The Associated Press in an opinion piece published by NBC news.
“’Undocumented’ also suggests that the problem is a minor one of missing paperwork, when the people involved are in jeopardy of arrest, deportation or other sanctions,” he said.
As pushback against the term “illegal immigrant” grows, so too the political stakes are growing.
A Fox News Latino poll conducted earlier this year found 46 percent of likely Hispanic voters surveyed felt the term "illegal immigrant" is offensive, indicating that candidates’ position on this issue of syntax could affect their vote choice.
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