Between politically correct and the truth

Last week The Huffington Post published an article regarding the University of California at Los Angeles’ ban on the term “illegal immigrant.” In putting this ban in place, the university joined the ranks of some of the United States’ most acclaimed news networks, including the Associated Press, CNN, ABC News and NBC news.

The weird part? I never knew “illegal immigrant” was problematic.

What’s wrong with it? It’s accurate, unlike the partially taboo “Indian,” so why have numerous institutions and organizations placed a ban on it? The reason seems obvious: The truth hurts. Let’s try not to offend.

Great, there’s another one to add to the never-ending vortex of political correctness.

Where does it ever end? According to the Global Language Monitor, it’s becoming less acceptable to say “Columbus Day,” something I’ve noticed on my own. These past few years, more and more people have bitterly wished me, “Happy Bring-Smallpox-to-Millions-of-People-and-Wipe-Out-Whole-Civilizations Day.”

Well, that’s a downer. (By the way, the alternate — and supposedly more acceptable term — is Explorer’s Day.)

Some common phrases are also under attack. The U.S. State Department Chief Diversity Officer John Robinson said it’s probably best to kick “hold down the fort” from your vocabulary.

“To ‘hold down the fort’ originally meant to watch and protect against vicious Native American intruders. In the West, Army soldiers or settlers saw the ‘fort’ as their refuge from their perceived ‘enemy,’ the stereotypical ‘savage’ Native American tribes,” Robinson wrote, in State Magazine.

Another interesting one is “rule of thumb,” supposedly offensive to women. Way back when, a husband could beat his wife with a rod no wider than his thumb and, provided he obeyed this “rule of thumb,” he would not face legal repercussions.

So where does “illegal immigrant” fit in? It lacks the history of “holding down the fort” and “rule of thumb,” so why is it offensive? Have UCLA and the media taken political correctness a little too far? Are they waltzing around the truth with alternate terms such as “undocumented” and “unauthorized”?

The New York Times, one of the few major news authorities that continues to use the term, thinks so.

“It is clear and accurate; it gets its job done in two words that are easily understood,” Public Editor Margaret Sullivan said, in The New York Times.

The New York Times is not the only one that disagrees. Many see the ban as excessive, and even worse, an impediment to the First Amendment.

However, the UCLA resolution says allowing the term conflicts with other constitutional rights. “[T]he racially derogatory I-Word endangers basic human rights including the presumption of innocence and the right to due process.” That is, the very term “illegal immigrant” goes against the mantra “innocent until proven guilty.”

Similarly, The Huffington Post, which uses the term “undocumented immigrant,” points out that the banned term criminalizes the people in question, rather than their actions. One cannot be inherently illegal. Therefore, it’s acceptable to say “illegal immigration,” at least, according to the Associated Press.

The College of William and Mary itself has not banned the term; however, because The Flat Hat follows Associated Press style, “illegal immigrant,” along with other words nixed from that stylebook, including “homophobia” and “Islamist,” have been dropped.

Whether we agree with UCLA and the Associated Press’s decision, it’s important to be mindful of our language, especially as we begin to look for jobs. Obviously, we want to avoid offending potential employers. Likewise, we want to be professional. Then there’s cultural sensitivity and awareness; we need to demonstrate that we are familiar with social issues, as well as conscious of how our words portray them.

Email Samantha Farkas at


  1. News organizations ought to maintain neutrality and accuracy, and the term “illegal immigrant” has been politicized to the point that it’s no longer neutral — and often used inaccurately. So it’s in keeping with news organizations’ missions to drop the phrase. Similarly, AP Style rejected the politicized terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” in favor of “anti-abortion” and “pro-abortion rights,” which are more neutral and accurate.

    To clarify, the University of California at Los Angeles did not ban the phrase “illegal immigrant.” Rather, the UCLA undergraduate student government passed a resolution to “encourage campus partners within student and campus life, student affairs, and student media to endorse the Drop the I-Word campaign to
    create a more humanizing, inclusive campus community for undocumented students,” and asked “all media organizations and journalists to uphold ethical and professional journalism standards by dropping the I-Word today.”

    There’s a huge difference between university officials trying to ban a phrase and a student government body simply encouraging people to stop using it.

  2. The inaccuracy of the term “undocumented” undermines the cause of migrant rights, because it creates a perception that activists are trying to mislead or to dictate beliefs by dictating which words are permissible to use.

    How about using “unlawfully present” in place of “illegal” in our terminology?

    For both those migrants with papers and those without, the real issue is this: some people care about violations (of laws or other government rules) that enabled the migrants we’re talking about to reside in the country. And those people often don’t care whether the migrant is blameless because someone else (human traffickers, parents of DREAMers, etc) caused the violations.

    Some people claim that the term “illegal” is demeaning or pejorative. Even if that could be proven, we could ask: why do those migrants deserve to be spared from that kind of term, given those violations I just mentioned? The migrants usually are willing beneficiaries of those violations, and often will commit more violations in order to stay in the USA.

    Activists are demanding that people stop referring to the migrants as “illegal”. Then they should suggest something much more accurate, something that captures the fact that those violations occurred (because the violations are what people care about and are the defining characteristic of the migrants we are talking about). Why should people settle for a misleading term like “undocumented” just to avoid the alleged possibility of stigmatization?

    We could say “unauthorized” instead of “illegal”. But then people could just say, “No human being is unauthorized.” So I guess that would solve nothing.

    A specific individual should not be described as “illegal” (or any replacement term) while his/her immigration status is unproven. But the term is often used to refer to a group of people known to exist in the USA (or whichever destination country is being discussed), and the appropriateness of the label for them is debatable.

    Saying “no human being is illegal” is a misleading slogan. I believe that few or no participants in the recent immigration debate ever seriously believed that people can be inherently illegal. I doubt that adults considering immigration issues believe the term “illegal immigrant” means that. The term is understood to have a different meaning.

    Instead, some people claim that a person’s presence in a particular place, or crossing a particular boundary, at a particular time can be the result of some kind of violation. Other people believe that such a presence is itself some kind of violation. I believe these are the two widely intended meanings of “illegal immigrant”. Unfortunately, it’s not always clear which of those two is meant, but both involve illegality so maybe that doesn’t matter.

    It’s true that we don’t describe people in other kinds of situations as illegal. For example, we don’t use “illegal drivers” to refer to those who get speeding tickets, or “illegal employers” to refer to those who knowingly hire employees who lack a legal right to work. But why are these migrants entitled to equality of terminology? The English language has other quirky terminology that we don’t worry about, because we know the intended meaning. We know the approximate intended meaning of this term “illegal”. Must this term have a legalistic degree of precision? Do we really need to get rid of it?

    It’s true that “illegal immigrant” is not thoroughly accurate terminology. But why is “undocumented” any better? For some of the migrants we are talking about, there do exist various documents related to their citizenship or residency.


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